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The Garden Pushes Back

‘You have to learn to let the garden be protagonist’, writes James Golden in his new book The View from Federal Twist. ‘This is humility’, he continues, ‘allowing the ‘other’ to take precedence, perhaps seeing the garden as a symbol of something larger and much more important.’ James’s approach to garden making is thoughtful and somewhat contrarian. Unafraid of making spaces that others might find uncomfortable, his garden at Federal Twist is nothing less than a full landscape immersion. The place speaks through the plants, and there is nothing passive about it.

Federal Twist garden viewed from above. Photo: James Golden

The Garden Pushes Back, an excerpt from The View from Federal Twist by James Golden

When I came to think about movement through the garden, I wanted to make it slow and indirect. Though the garden is not large, I intended it to have a spatial fluidity that invites you to wander and take a different way through each time. In this sense it’s highly permeable, though it doesn’t appear so at certain times of year, such as late summer, when many paths are hidden by the immersive mass of the garden. There are also parts of the garden you can’t enter simply because the plants take up all the available space. The garden, in a sense, ‘pushes back’ a bit, offers just a little resistance.

Visitors often ask me to tell them which way to go to see the garden. This isn’t a question I can answer. I’ve visited many gardens, and I can’t think of a single one that has a ‘start here’ sign. You simply plunge in and find your way. There is no single way to go around Federal Twist and see it in one pass. You have to select a path and start walking, and as you come to another path, you decide which way looks most interesting to you. Even better—you just wander. I designed the garden to encourage exploration and attention to detail—to put you in a relationship with the garden. 

Because the plantings are massive and tall, at times you can see only the path in front of you; the only way out is forward—to follow a path without knowing its destination. In this way, you encounter the garden. Only by allowing the garden to reveal itself, perhaps to challenge what you think a garden should be, will you find the experience interesting, useful or rewarding, and perhaps enjoyable. You have to give yourself up to it, to give the garden agency, to recognize you are part of the process of the garden. If you hear hints of ‘deep ecology’ in this, it is probably so.

Federal Twist garden. Photo: James Golden
Federal Twist garden. Photo: James Golden

My first conscious experience with this ‘push back’ happened when I discovered that some visitors couldn’t easily make their own way through. They would approach me as if lost, and this appeared to be an unusual experience for them. Since the garden is only slightly over one and a half acres (0.6 ha) in size, at first I thought these were simply people who might get lost any place, but it happened frequently enough that I had to accept the evidence of others. Most ‘lost’ visitors did not find the disorientating experience unpleasant; in fact, they often remarked on how much they enjoyed the garden, how different it was from most other gardens they had seen.

As I began to explore my own motivations for making numerous pathways through often very tall vegetation, I realized my intent had been to make a garden I could, in a sense, get lost in. The experience is like giving over control, being open to feeling the garden push back a bit, and allowing the garden to take charge.

My first experience with this ‘push back’ in another garden occurred several years later, on my first visit to Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire. Broughton Grange was designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, perhaps one of the more ‘intellectual’ garden designers in the UK. I had long admired the garden in photographs, particularly what appeared to be a grand centerpiece, a large, rectangular pool of water in the middle of the garden with a row of beautiful stepping stones across one side leading the eye off into the landscape. I had imagined a day when I could walk in that space, along the water, and across the stepping stones. It was an extremely enticing prospect. As imagined, it would be an easy, idyllic experience; nature (and the garden) would benignly accede to my wishes.

Broughton Grange, Oxfordshire, designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. Photo: James Golden

All this was a fantasy that bore little relation to the truth of the garden I found there. The square of water was so large, and so placed, that it blocked easy circulation through a large part of the garden. It felt like an obstacle, though a beautiful one. And with broad plantings, changes in level, limited pathways around the pool, and pathways that ended at the pool edge, it was a bit challenging to navigate, to get where I thought I wanted to be. This was my first notice that things were not as I had imagined. I felt a little surprised but I explored and found my way through, even discovered some delights, such as a dark tunnel of hedges with a distant view out a cut-away ‘window’ at the end. As I explored my way to the pool’s edge, I was enjoying the garden from many different points of view, and the views out were stunningly beautiful.

And then the ‘stepping stones’, which I had imagined walking across so many times in years past; they were in fact very large, and so spaced, that they did not make for an easy walk across the water (certainly not for me); they were more an impediment to walking. As I crossed them, I felt the passage was a little precarious. I could stand on one stone and feel as if it were a little island, but stepping across the intervening water from stone to stone required very close attention. I felt the stones were intended more as unique places for observation (perhaps more to be thought about than walked on) and not an easy path across the water.

I was forced to slow down, to stop, in fact, and rethink how to approach ‘seeing’ this remarkable garden. To paraphrase Tom Stuart-Smith, I had discovered, in a physical way, that the garden was not about me, that I was not in charge—the garden was. I recall I quickly left the stepping stones after crossing the water once, and took a comfortable seat on the opposite side where I could relax, enjoy the view across the garden into the valley beyond, and think about what had just happened.

I encountered this concept again the following year, but in a very different way, when I discovered a talk on the internet that Tom had given at the Garden Museum Literary Festival. That talk was especially intriguing because it seemed to confirm what I had experienced on my visit. Speaking about Broughton Grange, he said, ‘When you cross over the threshold into a garden . . . you see things in a different way and, particularly, you see that you as an individual are not the center of what’s going on . . . One of the most important things for me is that the middle of the garden is left empty. Because if the middle of the garden is empty, you can’t be there. It’s about the garden, and the processes of nature. The process of the garden takes primacy in the place.’

Federal Twist garden. Photo: James Golden
Federal Twist garden. Photo: James Golden
Federal Twist garden. Photo: James Golden

I believe what I experienced in my garden as ‘push back’ is similar to what Tom means when he said ‘The process of the garden takes primacy in the place.’ Using my own words, I would say the garden is not a passive ‘field of experience’ awaiting your enjoyment; it is not ‘going on’ for you. In fact, you are one of the myriad things going on in the garden. It is as if there really is a presence, a spirit of the place appointed to watch over the garden, as the Romans believed. In this encounter, the spirit is fulfilling its duty to protect the place from preconceived expectations, or from complacency. You could imagine the presence pushes back, testing you, to remind you that, in this place, you are not the center of things. The garden is the thing.

You may reject this as hocus-pocus drivel. Being a rationalist, a believer in science, I’ve felt the same for much of my life—but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter a bit whether I believe in a spirit of the place or not. If I have a feeling, an inner experience, then that experience is as real as a solid rock lying at my feet.

The spirit of the place is real.

The View from Federal Twist (2022) is published by Filbert Press. It is available in bookshops worldwide.

Federal Twist garden. Photo: James Golden