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In Praise of Quiet Landscapes

I used to make fairy gardens out of rocks on the side of the road while waiting for the school bus. Miniature paths weaving among straggly clumps of grass which, as a child on her knees, elbows pressed into gravel, eyes up close, were wispy forests where anything could happen. My first gardens were tiny tracks in gravel, erased daily by wind and the motion of cars. But they were worlds. My nine-year-old attempt at being somewhere else.

Garden making has long indulged the human desire, perhaps need, to make worlds of our own. The garden as a ‘bettering’ of what is on the other side of the fence. Nature controlled and heightened, an attempt at Eden. The language we use hints at this aspiration. Sanctuary, respite, kingdom. These words evoke a vision of a place that exists as somewhere else, beyond the constraints of climate, site, geology. Gardening as transcendence.

Garden making. As designers, as gardeners, it is assumed we add to a place. We make more. And in line with the trajectory of our culture, more and more and more. Sometimes, in our self-made garden-worlds, it is hard to know where we are. Hard to see or hear what a place is telling us amid the noise of what’s been made.

Gardening is creation. And creation can be an act of revelation as much as addition.

Consider the difference between prose and poetry. In prose, the gaps are filled. Language is used to explain, clarify, articulate. Prose tells us what the writer knows, often suggesting to the reader what to think. Poetry, on the other hand, is as much about what is not said, as what is. It encourages the reader to look, think and draw their own conclusions. To inhabit the spaces between things.

If a garden can be understood in a similar way, a prose garden will tell us what to see, how to see it. It relies on clear articulation. A garden that is a poem dances with ambiguity. Is it a garden? If so, how do we know? If not, what is it?

Marc Treib, Professor Emeritus of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, calls this the austere garden. Austere, not in the sense of harshness or lack, but modesty and restraint. He writes in Austere Gardens: Thoughts on Landscape, Restraint and Attending that such landscapes ‘may first appear devoid of interest if noticed at all. But there are sensual, aesthetic, and even philosophical, pleasures to be gained from these seemingly dull fields should we attempt to appreciate them. These qualities, normally associated with abundance and complexity, may be found in a different way, and at a different level, in austere terrain.’

Artist Bill Henson’s home garden in Northcote Melbourne. On Wurundjeri land. Photo: Daniel Shipp

RESTRAINT

Abundance is a glorious word and aspiration. It is present both in contrived landscapes and those beyond the garden fence. As is reduction, restraint. Consider the windswept heathland of the Australian coast; the Mediterranean phrygana; the Mojave Desert. Landscapes that through visual reduction offer an experience different to that of abundance. Spaciousness, quietness, calm.

I once went looking at wildflowers in south-west Western Australia. A road trip with my plant-loving mother and mostly tolerant father. Grey, grey, grey lumps of foliage flanked the roadsides. No visual cues suggesting the phenomenal abundance that existed on closer inspection. Again and again we’d find ourselves leaving the car, on hands and knees, observing up close. An austere landscape on one level, abundant on another. But only if you looked.

It is unlikely we would have stopped as often, scrambling into the scrub to see more, if the landscape and its botanical jewels presented themselves flagrantly to us through the car window.

Unlike the obvious digestibility of abundance, subtle landscapes demand more of the viewer. Restrained landscapes require reflection, interrogation.

Ecological design principles – such as biodiversity and habitat value – need not be restricted to a particular style of garden. Rather, suggests landscape architect Claudia West of US firm Phyto Studio, and co-author of Planting in a Post-Wild World, they’re underpinnings. The style of the garden – whether restrained, wild or otherwise –  is another matter. ‘None of our projects ever look the same … We will use something that appears as a block planting for some projects but the clients won’t see that it’s underplanted with groundcovers and smaller species’. Visual profusion is not necessarily related to higher biodiversity. It just makes it easier to see.

Minimalism, modernism. What is being discussed is neither of these things. It is this: A poem can point to the truth with a brevity an essayist can only dream of. Contrived abundance has the capacity to obscure what is true, rather than reveal it.

Filtry Garden in Warsaw, Poland. By Landscape Practice. Photo: Marta Tomasiak

REVELATION

Designers and gardeners often speak of the essence of a place. The inarticulable genius loci. Because of its ephemerality, because clients expect a certain ‘outcome’, the spirit of place is spoken about in initial concept designs before being quietly shuffled away. How do you capture an intangible on a plan anyway? Genius loci, returning to the poetry analogy, might be said to be the space between things; yet gardens are often seen as places where the gaps need to be filled. What happens, then, if they’re not?

‘The simplest act of design might just be to see anew what lies before us with no additional intervention,’ writes Marc Treib. ‘Design as revelation would follow next: using restrained means to disclose what already exists or has been concealed by human acts or natural processes over time.’

Gardening as revelation requires a realignment of perception, insisting the land is not empty, a blank slate waiting for ‘improvement’, for our ‘additions’; that design is not decoration, but the act of highlighting, uncovering; enabling what is already present to be seen clearer. A nudge, a subtle pointer, a narrow vista opening up to a new/old vision.

A narrow path winding through trees, a void amid the weeds. The garden as a modest landscape intervention.

AMBIGUITY

‘I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem,’ writes poet Louise Gluck in the essay ‘Disruption, Hesitation, Silence’. ‘I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power …’

Ambiguity is a concept that fills politicians with dread, a state we’re encouraged to avoid. Yet the acts that take us closest to the truth of things all have ambiguity at their core. Literature, art, music.

Ambiguity requires the viewer, reader, participant to make up their own mind. To feel while thinking.

In a visual sense, ambiguity may simply mean the obscuring of expected visual cues within a space. Fences, horizon lines, exit points. Offering the garden visitor space to come to their own conclusions, find their own meaning. To look again.

Japanese garden designer and Zen Buddhist priest Shunmyō Masuno: ‘I aim to produce gardens that people continuously want to observe intently. The act of gazing fixedly is the act of creating the opportunity to think – that is, to wonder introspectively.’

Quiet gardens require attention.

MODESTY

‘…interest is found in places unassuming and overlooked as well as those complex and assertive,’ Treib writes. ‘Perceiving is only one half of the story, however, realising places using simple acts and reduced means is the other.’

Excess is a familiar state. The words makeover, overhaul, transformation are lobbed around on TV shows, design offices, backyards. Modesty of material, of intervention, of design, of ego: less common. Cultivating quiet landscapes might be more about presence and perception than construction.

Modesty and humility are related. British garden designer Dan Pearson says of his Somerset home garden: ‘We’re working with the landscape in a gentler way … fighting less and less with what it’s telling us it wants.’ It is revealing that Pearson speaks this way of his garden. As most designers can attest, a modest landscape is a hard sell. Gentle interventions rarely photograph well, unlike grand, graphic statements. Gardens that require contemplation for comprehension, that need to be felt not just seen, are difficult to articulate within the typical parameters of the design studio.

I worked on my home garden for a number of years before it started being viewed as a garden by others. I cleared a lifetime of dirt from old paths, slowly removed a forest of noxious weeds. Small scraps of ground were opened to the light, allowing the seeds in the soil to sprout. Some endemic, some not. I planted tubestock. I left patches of weeds to cover the soil and provide homes for insects while the place began to show itself.

The author’s home garden on Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury River. On Darug land. Photo: Daniel Shipp

At the same time, I was watching presentations at conferences on perennial/new perennial/naturalistic gardens. Devouring images on Instagram, getting drunk on all that glorious abundance. I was listening to very knowledgeable plant-people talk about maintenance, gravel mulches, on managing the plant layers and the flowering times and the soil nutrient levels.

Eden: an otherworld to aspire to, or always under our feet?

I half-dreamt of creating a lush, floriferous wonderland of a garden. A continuation, perhaps, of the world-making I began as a child on the side of the road, waiting for the bus. But it didn’t feel right. For this place, for me.

I wondered, and I still wonder, what it is that drives us to fill the gaps. To burden a place with our ideas and aspirations. To make more noise than is necessary.

Treib’s Austere Gardens articulated in a way I hadn’t contextualised before what I needed to do. Which was, perhaps, the least I could do.

I made a void. A shape defined by logs washed up on the tide. They are breaking down, and the form they make is slowly disintegrating. But it’s enough. Everything outside is mad, messy, unintelligible. But that one space that is empty is enough to carry what isn’t. Is enough to hold the poetry that exists between things. Is enough to quietly suggest a garden.

Post cover image: Sorrento garden by Sam Cox Landscape. On Bunurong land. Photo: Will Salter