Category Archives: quotes

gardens as virtual reality

I’ve been reading parts of The Afterlife of Gardens, by John Dixon Hunt, a book on gardens that comes at the subject from an interestingly different take. Where most books on gardens discuss the design aspects of gardens, and many books on gardening talk about plants and their needs, this volume tries to be a “reception study,” using a technique prevalent in analyses of literary texts “by exploring how sites are experienced, often through a longue durĂ©e of existence, change and reformulation.” It’s definitely an academic work, maybe one better suited to the late autumn months when the garden outside is tucked into its winter bed than this time of year when you want to be out in it, experiencing all the outrageous pleasures it has to offer.

One of the early chapters bears an intriguing title, “The Garden as Virtual Reality,” and it’s a look at some of the ways how gardens achieve their meaning. Here’s a snippet:

…I want to pursue the idea of the physical garden itself as a virtual reality. For one way of thinking about landscape architecture is to emphasize the way in which it affords visitors many of the same opportuniries as do sites on a computer screen: digitally, the visitor may choose his or her route, clicking on the mouse and opting for a variety of different paths, different experiences, different associations and ideas. Visiting a real site entails much of the same process, although now the”mouse” is a person’s deliberate or instinctive selection of routes and meanings withing the one territory… This kind of visitation of a real garden also involves constant interaction of the subject and object, since the exploration of a real landscape is by no means a passive activity; even a small urban square requires us to “get to know it,” with its elements directing our growing acquaintance with its potential as a space to inhabit.

In this way all good landscape architecture also manages to project a sense both of reality and of virtuality. There is the palpable, haptic place, smelling, sounding, catching the eye…; then there is also the sense of an invented or special place, this invention resulting from the creation of richer and fuller experiences than would be possible, at least in such completeness or intensity, if they were not designed. Like cyberspace, a designed landscape is always at bottom a fiction, a contrivance–yet its hold on our imagination will derive, paradoxically, from the actual materiality of its invented sceneries.

niagaras of the east and west

Earlier I posted a couple of my tourist pictures of Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, the “Niagara of the West.” I’ve just begun to scan and print the negatives of the large-format work from the trip. Here are three from the falls:

Viewpoint at Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho:Viewpoint, Shoshone Falls, Idaho

Shoshone Falls Park:Shoshone Falls Park, Snake RIver, Idaho

Parking Lot at Shoshone Falls Park:Parking Lot, Shoshone Falls Park, Idaho

Interestingly, in the pile of newspapers John had saved for me from while I was away, was a book review in the L.A. Times of Ginger Strand’s Inventing Niagara. Interestingly too, in browsing for the book on the web I noticed that it has two different subtitles: “Beauty, Power and Lies,” as well as the more provocative “How Industry, Commerce and Art Conspire to Sell (Out) a Natural Wonder.”

I’d lamented that the Niagara of the West had been despoiled and exploited to an unseemly theme-parkness, and in this long quote in the review Strand has similar things to say about the Niagara of the East:

Manicured, repaired, landscaped and artificailly lit, dangerous overhangs dynamited off and water flow managed to suit the tourist schedule, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength. In fact, they are a study in self-delusion: we visit them to encounter something real, then observe them through fake Indian tales, audio tours and IMAX films… We hold them up as an example of unconquerable nature even as we applaud the daredevil’s and power-brokers who conquer them. And we congratulate ourselves for preserving nature’s beauty in an ecosystem that, beneath its shimmering emerald surface, reflects our own ugly ability to destroy. On every level, Niagara Falls is a monument to the ways America falsifies its relationship to nature, reshaping its contours, redirecting its force, claiming to submit to its will while imposing our own on it.

Reviewer Tim Rutter, as much as he likes a lot of what Strand has to say, ends up finding the writing of the book to be tiring and frustrating. In that most post-modern technique now turning into cliche, the author’s process of writing the book plays a starring role in the book. When well done it can still be interesting, but in this example Rutter didn’t think that it was. Take that pronouncement under advisement, but it still sounds like the book is a worthwhile read.

the dark side of lawns

I was thumbing through The American Lawn, edited by Georges Teyssot, a collection of thoughts on the phenomenon of American lawns by eight contributors. It’s a wide ranging collection of essays looking at the place of lawns in American culture since colonial days. One of the pieces, “The Electric Lawn” by Mark Wigley, has a couple of quotes that interested me in my current disenchantment with all things turf-related.

On lawns and power relationships:

While renderings for clients may show the lawn, and manuals of drawing technique may describe the ways in which it can be represented, the drawings with which architects communicate to themselves and other architects leave the lawn out. It is assumed that wherever there is nothing specified in the drawing there is grass. The lawn is treated like the paper on which the projects are drawn, a tabula rasa without any inherent interest, a background that merely clears the way for the main event. Yet the lawn is always precisely controlled, whether by the architect or landscape designer. Lawns are all about control. The green frame is far from neutral or innocent. What is left out of the picture often rules the picture.

And a look at 50s green-lawned utopia gone bad:

The deadly lawnmower is the star of the dark side of suburban life. Take Stephen King, the high priest of suburban gothic. In his 1985 film Maximum Overdrive, a passing alien spaceship causes all the machines on the planet to turn against their operators–insulting, taunting, torturing, and then killing. A young boy rides his bicycle down the middle of a generic suburban street. Lawns pass by on either side. The only sign of trouble is that the automatic sprinklers uncannily respond to his presence…A blood-stained lawnmower lurks behind a tree, idling, waiting. When the boy finally stops, it roars to life and chases him down the street…

Well, I didn’t see that movie, and Leonard Maltin rates it a bomb: “Stupid and boring.” Maybe a couple of interesting takes on suburbia, but nothing for the Netflix queue…

those arrogant humans…

Are gardeners more humble people? Do we know things a lot of others don’t or believe in things others choose not to believe? Here are a couple thoughts for Earth Day, the first one a soft feather bed of a quote, the second one a bed of nails.

Human beings–any one of us, and our species as a whole–are not all-important, not at the center of the world. That is the one essential piece of information, the one great secret, offered by any encounter with the woods or the mountains or the ocean or any wilderness or chunk of nature or patch of night sky.–Bill McKibben in an interview with Susan Salter Reynolds, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 13.

If wildlife species are to become extinct, that will be regrettable. But any literate person knows that extinction is the way of evolution, and is in the fundamental flow of life. However, man is different. If man is not immortal, then there is no purpose or meaning in his existence. Which in turn would mean no purpose or meaning in the universe. The human immortality imperative is absolute and radical. That is why wildlife conservation has never been permitted to move to the questions of ultimate value. There is no place for an ultimate nonhuman value in our western metaphysics, because of necessity, the human interest is the cosmic interest. That is what it is all about. Wildlife is an “externality.” — John. A. Livingston in The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, in The John A. Livingston Reader (2007: 101).

ant farm[ers]

So…you think humans are the only critters who farm and garden? Think again. From a Science in Brief column in yesterday’s LA Times comes this about ants:

Study finds ants longtime farmers

Ants took up farming some 50 million years ago, according to researchers who traced the ancestry of farmer ants.

An analysis of the DNA of farmer ants traced them back to an original ancestor — a sort of Adam ant, at least for the types that raise their own food, according to a paper published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the last 25 million years, ants have developed different types of farming, including the well-known leaf-cutter ants. Leaf-cutter ants don’t eat the leaves they collect. Instead, they grow fungus on the leaves and eat the fungus.

Only four types of animals are known to farm for food — ants, termites, bark beetles and, of course, humans. All four cultivate fungi.

If you have online access to that journal, you can read the full article at: There’s no research on whether ants prefer to create formal gardens or naturalistic ones, though I’d guess aesthetics aren’t hight on their list of concerns.

To that, I’d also add that some ants are also livestock farmers in that they cultivate other animals. Aphids and ants have a symbiotic relationship, with ants tending aphids to share in the sweet nectar they exude. And all last year we had a major ant trail leading from the ground into the grapefruit tree, where ants and scale insects had set up shop on the skins of the young grapefruits. It didn’t seem to affect the grapefruits too much, though we always had to remember to scrub them clean before serving them up. Here’s a link to a related story on ants and scale insects in tropical coffee plantations.

vegetable plutonium

In my more active anti-nuke activist days one of the more compelling arguments against nuclear power was that some of its byproducts were so long-lived that they would remain lethal for longer than human civilization has existed. Plutonium-239, for example, has a half-life of something like 24,000 years, and even a tiny particle of it could prove dangerous to a person.

I was thinking about that during my weeding exercise this weekend, dealing with a neglected corner of the garden where the neighbor’s English ivy had crossed over and under the fence and set up a stand that had spread 20 feet or more into my yard. In the course of its invasion, it had contributed to a low brick retaining wall being pushed over.
The wall the ivy helped push over

I hate to use stuff like Roundup in the yard, but I tried it on the ivy a couple weeks ago. Some of the weeds around it shriveled to brown ghosts of themselves, but at best the ivy showed a little burning around the edges of the leaves. I’d tried Roundupping the ivy before, with similar minimal results. Ivy really seems like the thing that wouldn’t die. Some online sites have guidelines on how to get rid of the stuff, but none of them seem to guarantee easy control. (A couple of the sites I looked at: Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council Invasive Plant Manual and the Plant Conservation Alliance’s “Least wanted” pages.)

I wasn’t looking forward to the alternative of digging it out by hand, but digging it out by hand was the chore that ate my weekend. And it’s a chore that’ll be occupying at least a couple more. The job is extra-awful in that even a little piece of ivy runner left in the ground could grow roots and set up a whole new colony. You have to be sure to dig down the foot or so that the runners can travel at, and you need to be sure that you’ve rid the patch of all the alien ivy life forms before you move on to the next spadefull. It’s like vegetable plutonium in that any little bit left in the ground could prove dangerous for future generations. Nasty, evil stuff.

Here you can see the proportion of dirt to ivy roots…

If my mantra of my teen years was “No nukes!” the mantra of my current gardening life has to be “No Ivy!” Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for his quote that went something like, “Doctor’s can always bury their mistakes. Architects can only plant ivy.” Well, friends, doing that would be the greatest mistake of all.

some random quotes

All gardening is landscape painting.–Alexander Pope

Planting ground is painting a landscape with living thing.–Gertrude Jekyll

Once properly examined, Jekyll’s comparison looks to be both superficial and exaggerated.–David E. Cooper

The Japanese garden designer creates a theater for the wind to speak.–Ezra Pound

Any one can create a pretty little bamboo garden in the world. But I doubt that the gardener would succeed in incorporating the world in his bamboo garden.–Hermann Hesse

The life of a serious gardener is not one that, as it happens involves some gardening. Instead, it is one partly define by the structured, regular activities which are imposed once the decision to grow and to garden is made.–David E. Cooper

All the above from David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens

a philosphy of gardens

I’ve just finished David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens, a short, dense book–though readable as far as philosophy goes. In it he tries to figure out what it is about gardens that make them matter to us. After propping up some points for discussion, he proceeds to demolish them, one by one, as being misguided or simplistic. Some of these ideas he jettisons: gardens are important because they are art, gardens are important because they represent nature, and gardens are important because they represent a fusion of both art and nature. Mr. Negative. See if I invite him to a party.

But he takes those and other ideas to come up a synthesis at the end, that gardens represent some sort of epiphany. He begins his conclusion with a “Modest Proposal:”

…The Garden exemplifies the co-dependence of human creative activity and nature… (P. 142)

Then he expands it further:

If The Garden exemplifies or embodies co-dependence, then, this cannot simply be that between human endeavor and nature, but a further, “more mysterious” relation. (P. 143)

…and finally concludes:

[G]ardening or cultivation…[is] a practice which, engaged in with an appropriate sensibility–engaged in “thinkingly,” as Heidegger would say–embodies more saliently than any other practice the truth of the relation between human beings, their world, and the “ground” from which the “gift” of this world comes. (P. 160)

On his way to the final conclusion he brings in Zen notions of the world, so that this “gift” that he speaks of isn’t necessarily some Western, “God-given” theological construction, but a more universal sense of our place in the cosmos.

Take a look at the book if you’re was in the mood to step into some metaphysical goo…

"nature" and natives

Here’s a bit of discussion from David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens that talks a bit about gardens and nature and those who would have a garden be made of only native plants, a topic I touched on lightly in a previous post:

“Nature” and is cognates are, of course, elastic and ambiguous terms, and not a few debates that have raged among gardeners betray equivocation over these terms. When, for example, William Robinson, the nineteenth-century champion of “the wild garden,” argued that it was natural to stock one’s garden with plants introduced from abroad, his points were that one was thereby “naturalizing” these foreign natives and entering into a less parochial “communion with nature.” In objecting to such introductions, however, his many critics have usually meant that it is unnatural to grow plants that are not ecological natives of one’s country or parish. Again, some debates reflect the different uses of “nature” to refer now the the natural environment that is visible to us, and now the “the essential reality underlying all things” which, according to Monet’s friend, Georges Clemenceau, the great painter was trying to “expose” in his garden at Giverny.

(Cooper 2006: 34-5)