River Garden Diaries: All Prospect, No Refuge

It’s August and the wind has arrived. It makes its frenzied entrance from the west, whipping the river into angry white peaked waves. Salt spray sweeps along the water’s surface like horizontal rain and the casuarinas on the river bank whisper frenetically in response. The boatshed, where I work, lacks glass in a few of its windows and the wind charges through one end and out the other, blowing papers off my desk and thoughts from my mind.

In August and September, and sometimes October and November, January and February, the wind asserts itself over the river landscape – and we, the residents both animal and plant, respond accordingly. I transplant myself from the boatshed to the kitchen table to work, because there’s windows and it feels less likely that the building itself will blow over. The dog refuses to leave the sanctuary of the house lest she get blown off the deck. The birds vacate the vegetation flanking the riverbank for the protection of the dense bushland on the hill behind. The trees bend and flex, showering the garden and roof with branches and leaves; and the few vaguely delicate plants in the garden shrivel and burn. Most of the poor soft ones have long gone, though I continue to keep trying (or perhaps torturing) one or another, usually the result of a well-meaning gift, or an impulsive nursery purchase.

It strikes me, as the glass-less boatshed windows rattle, as I get up early to water plants before the wind catches up with me, that whilst this place is an incredible emotional shelter, it could do with being a little more physically protected, for everyone – human animals, non-human animals and plants.


There’s a theory that rattles around landscape design and architecture circles called Prospect and Refuge. Coined by British geographer Jay Appleton in the 1970s, it asserts that humans have an innate desire to be in environments that allow us to see without being seen; environments that provide the opportunity for both prospect (views, vistas and open spaces) and refuge (safe, protected spaces). The theory arose from the idea that early human evolution occurred primarily in savannah landscapes typified by wide stretches of open grassland (prospect – prey could be observed and hunted), and clusters of trees (refuge – people could shelter from danger). According to Appleton, and many others since, we’re hard-wired to find places that offer both elements – prospect and refuge – aesthetically attractive. We want to be in spaces that tick both boxes.

Spend some time people watching in your local park and you’ll soon see the prospect – refuge theory in action. If given a choice between sitting in the middle of space, or on the edge, preferably under a tree, or with a form of enclosure behind, people will generally sit on the edge. It’s safer there.

I see the theory in action regularly, in others and myself. Always, when looking through images of gardens and landscapes, I’m drawn always to the ones that lead somewhere. Scenes of bushland with a road winding through. A door half open, framing yet partly obscuring the view behind. Rarely dense bushland, rarely open desert. Always somewhere in-between, somewhere with both mass and void. It’s probably why I love public gardens like Wendy Whiteley’s garden in Lavender bay (a refuge if ever there were one) and Sydney Park in Alexandria – with its densely treed folds and open grassy hills. It’s why, when bushwalking, I always stop in places that offer a clearing and a vista of sorts. A cave or sandstone overhang, a large boulder I can lean up against. They’re places I feel safe in and can see from.

I think about prospect and refuge as I hide from the wind in the house. Whilst I’m very grateful to have a house to shelter in, I do think it’s about time I applied the theory in the garden. There’s nowhere to hide out there. From the wind, or from my delusions.

A refuge from unreality

I pull a book, bought from an op-shop many years ago, down off the bookshelf. It’s called Seaside Gardening in Australia, by Marcelle Monfries (we don’t actually live by the sea, but we’re near enough that the river water is salty and tidal, and the soil is essentially sand). It flops open to a double page spread featuring with two illustrations, side by side. The drawing on the left, titled The Dream, consists of a pretty vista of a lush garden through the windows of a house. A sail boat bobs on the water in the distance. It’s idyllic. The drawing on the right, titled The Reality, is a windswept, wind-burnt, disaster. The yawning gap between dream and reality results in, according to Marcelle, ‘the dreadful monotony of plants seen in coast gardens.’ She goes on, ‘The fearful uninformed gardener has given up the battle before the first sortie, and settled for ugliness not loveliness.’ I don’t know of Marcelle, but I do like her forthright style. And, maybe she’s onto something; my vision of what my river garden might become has transformed itself over the couple of years we’ve lived here from rambling romance to rough-and-ready-resilience. I just want something, anything, to grow, monotony or not.

According to Marcelle, I need to get serious. ‘Battle must be joined if the destroying elements of salt, sea and wind are to be subdued and then finally defeated.’ I have to say, I’m not really into war talk, but there’s something about her call to action that gets me motivated.

A refuge from wind

To win the fight against wind, Marcelle tells me to build a screen. She writes that screens with air gaps are more effective than solid screens (60:40 is the best ratio). I may follow her advice, but I am perhaps still too concerned with making beautiful things and so, with lack of budget and inclination, I think I’ll probably make a screen with plants. Marcelle asserts that a plant screen will take a very long time and that if I want to go in that direction I should plant densely. I will, thank you Marcelle. I research plants that will grow on sand dunes. Acacia longifolia, saltbush, pigface, banksia, Myoporum boniense. I have a few of these plants alive and growing, albeit slowly, and I need more.

An ironic aside: When we bought the property it had a huge, weedy mass growing up the north western boundary. It was dense and tall and if I’d have known what we were in for, I may have re-considered removing it. I thought I was doing the right thing, but now, on watching the native tubestock I planted in its place over a year ago struggle along in the hydrophobic soil, buffeted by wind and chomped on by wallabies, I’m inclined to wonder otherwise.

I did my research yesterday, trawling through nursery stock lists, highlighting the plants I think might work. I added in a few extra curiosities and questionable survivors to the short list, because, well, just because. The reality hasn’t entirely killed the romance.

I made my plant list yesterday. I planned my nursery visit for today. But my attempts at cultivating refuge were thwarted by that which I sought refuge from. Wind.

We live on a stretch of the river with an island opposite us, which creates a channel between. When the wind blows from the west it hits the channel and funnels through, sandwiched by the island on one side, and the steep hill on the other. This wind has blown one of my neighbours off his jetty, landing him in hospital with deep oyster cuts on his feet. It’s blown another’s boatshed over (whilst I was watching!). It’s blown lounges 20 meters down river, and lounge cushions even further. It’s blown the glasses of my partner’s face. We are boat-access only here (no roads, no cars) and so when this kind of wind arrives, we don’t leave. It’s a good excuse when you really don’t want to go to the dentist in the city, but not so good when there’s plants to buy. Maybe tomorrow it’ll be calmer.

As I wait for the wind to drop, I look down on my battered all-prospect-no-refuge garden and remind myself that it isn’t a total disaster. That seeds of refuge, of shelter, have sprouted and are growing. I remind myself what a privilege it is to live in such a place – where the elements are present in a way I’ve never experienced before. Everything – wind, rain, fire, water – pushes up against you here. It’s impossible not to know, not to feel, what’s going on. I remind myself that this is how I want to live – face to face with life. Face to face with the wind, the tides, the moon, the wallabies, the trees. There’s prospect in this for me. Plenty, in fact. And refuge, too. Maybe more than I realise.