Musings of a Hedgehunter

One of the many curious aspects of being human is the relative ease with which we prune, snip, trim, and manipulate almost all aspects of nature. We can’t help ourselves. We tweak, paint, dig up and rearrange. We crossbreed species so they match our feature walls. We favour straight orange carrots ‘just because’, and we turn our noses up at the misshapen or odd. We’re just the worst, aren’t we?

To be fair, we often behave this way because we’re just so damn smitten with nature. Of course, we want to display it proudly, like an 8 year old at show and tell, celebrating its beauty.

But there’s something about the human attraction to overtly spherical or angular shrubs that makes me a little uneasy…

I am told plants lack central nervous systems so any assumption we’re performing torture by ornamentation can be dismissed. And I do get that most of us don’t want to walk around in an anarchist style urban jungle – I love a liveable city as much as the next person. But I can’t let go of the feeling that there’s more to the hedge than meets the eye…

Topiary (the art of clipping plants into shapes) can be traced back to ancient Rome where trained cypress pines adorned the homes of the elite, maintained by slaves of course.

Topiary kept a pretty low profile throughout the dark ages (no judgement here, who has time to prune a tree when basic life is a struggle?). During the Italian Renaissance hedges once again became a reflection of wealth and power. Interestingly, from here topiary branched off into a few different styles based on the fashions of the time. Some examples include the vast, bold hedges of Versailles designed by André Le Nôtre; the popular aromatic and culinary English knot gardens during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I; and the ever-quirky Dutch and their expressive take on the art form, recreating people, birds and abstract forms.

This experimental Dutch style of topiary pollinated England and any previous hedge restraint was thrown to the kerb. This period came to be known as “topiary’s golden age” and it was not without backlash (hedge haters gonna hate).

Around 1712 English essayist Joseph Addison was quoted as saying, “Our trees rise in cones, globes and pyramids. We see the mark of the scissors on every plant and bush…I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriancy and diffusion…” It was his and the remarks of other poets and writers that led to a decline in topiary’s popularity. From what I can gather hedge keeping has since been a matter of taste. It quickly dawned on me how divisive hedges have been and just how much we see our gardens as a reflection of our cultural philosophies.

Maintaining hedges, to me, has always been a pastime for homeowners six ‘burbs over. Admittedly, my own infatuation with topiary was initially all LOLs and kitsch in its essence. However I’ll admit there is something about an absurdly geometric tree or shrub that I do find delightfully amusing. It was only a few months into my hedge-drunk craze that I even stopped to question the effort involved in making a tree look like a non-tree.

I am by no means the only post renaissance individual to question the hidden meaning in overly pruned plant life. Many other higher profile people have pondered the very same question.

Remember Edward Scissorhands? Tim Burton played with themes of conformity and creativity using bland suburban landscapes and towering hedges. Topiary is seen here as the common ground between the reclusive misfit Edward and the fickle suburbanites who, starved for excitement, temporarily warm to him through his art.

Contemporary American artist Jeff Koon’s most notable work, Puppy, references 18century formal European gardens using a 12-meter West Highland terrier made from stainless steel, soil and flowering plants. Koon’s art often tests the boundaries between elite and popular culture and is concerned with humans’ sentimental possessions; his behemoth mossy pup is no exception.

Closer to home, the more I document and research the non-fictional real house shrubs around me, the more I wonder when to draw the line and bring out the secateurs, and when to let nature do it’s own thing. When do we give it a helping hand (my veggie patch being particularly needy at the moment) or when to just leave it alone?

On one hand, there are those such as Japanese farmer/philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, who created “Do Nothing” farming, he was an inspiration for the permaculture movement and believed even pruning fruit trees unnecessary. On the other, there are the those like the good folk of Railton, Tasmania, who love topiary so much they have literally put it on the map: creating their own “Town of Topiary”, rallying international tourism by celebrating plant life. Both parties truly honour nature and that’s something to be celebrated.

One thing is for sure; our humble suburban domestic gardens reveal plenty about our society and culture. They reflect our tastes and habits, our relationships with environments, and our complex interpretation of the natural world. To quote Sir David Attenborough, “People must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure.” If that means being Mother Nature’s self-appointed hairdresser then hedge on! Just don’t be surprised to find a hedgehunter like me, curiously admiring your fresh topiary, camera in hand.