River Garden Diaries: Tree Songs and a Sense of Place

I’m sitting at my new workspace in the cleanest corner of our crusty old boathouse looking out, through the ancient cobwebs on the even more ancient windows, to the river. It’s high tide and the wind is low. A stand of three casuarinas grow in the half meter gap between the dilapidated sea wall and the building. They reach out across the water, their needles hanging down and framing my view.

The trees are part of a larger clump nearby. One old mother tree surrounded by a heap of babies. Suckers, they’re called. A rather un-flattering name for family members. They’re all connected to each other, these trees. Living from the same resources, part of the same root system.

Apparently Casuarina glauca can live for hundreds of years. I fantasise that our mother tree is ancient. That she watched over this landscape before European colonisation. That she holds its secrets, whispering them only to those who listen.

New studio view!
Moving house, river style.

We sort-of-officially moved in a few weeks ago. Our life essentials were packed neatly into a truck in the city, unloaded at an oyster farmers yard, and loaded again – this time onto a punt (a big flat bottomed boat). Finally, they were lugged up the hill to our tiny house. Their final resting place. Things don’t seem to make the return trip.

My plant collection has followed me from the city to the bush in dribs and drabs. I began bringing them a few months back – first up were the tough guys – cactus and a few brave succulents that’d tolerate our water issues (we don’t have any) and the existing residents (wallabies, possums, brush turkeys).

They needed to be planted, or, more accurately, I needed to plant them. I needed to cultivate. So they’ve been dug into a holding bay of sorts. A one square meter patch of ground is now their home until I get a grasp on how and where they’ll fit.”

Context changes everything. My little collection of (mostly succulent) plants from a contained, controlled urban space look rather strange when thrown into the vastness of a wild and neglected bush landscape. They won’t work aesthetically the way they used to work in the city. They don’t yet speak to the sprit of the place, the genius loci. Will they? Can they? I hope so. In fact, they’ll have to.

Makeshift garden versus washing line.

Genius loci is a term all landscape architects and designers are familiar with. It translates as ‘the spirit of the place’. It’s a concept I’ve always felt strongly about – creating gardens that feel connected to the natural and built landscape surrounding them.

The spirit of any one place is built up of many, many layers. From the ancient geology of a site, the human history, the current land use to the architecture both on and surrounding the space. It’s the starting point for the process of truly understanding a landscape.

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terras, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.

Consult the Genius of the Place in all,
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall…

Alexander Pope wrote these rather famous words in 1732 in Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. This poem is credited by many as the foundation of the importance of genius loci in garden and landscape design. A few hundred years later another Englishman, Russell Page, highly regarded for making gardens that look inevitable, wrote in The Education of a Gardener:

“To make a garden is to organise all the elements present and add fresh ones, but first of all, I must absorb as best I can all that I see, the sky and the skyline, the soil, the colour of the grass and the shape and nature of the trees. Each half-mile of countryside has its own nature and every few yards is a re-interpretation. Each stone where it lies says something of the earth’s underlying structure; and the plants growing there, whether native or exotic, will indicate the vegetable chemistry of that one place.”

Page also writes of the energy, though he reckons it’s usually short lived, created when a design is deliberately incongruous with the landscape it sits upon. Perhaps I’m a bit of a dissident, but I do love the idea of a bit of incongruity thrown into my river garden mix. Not enough to compromise the garden’s connection to place, but enough to reflect me, my desires, my ideas, my truth; after all, a garden is a human construct.

For the first time in my life, I’ll be making a garden for myself. My collection of weird plants – ones that’ve been with me for many years, ones that’ve been gifted, shared, and ‘borrowed’ will have to be a part of it. They’re part of my journey.”

They’ll fit in – whether they do now or not is irrelevant (but interesting to ponder nonetheless). Once a sense of genius loci is formulated, it can be distilled down to essentials, to truths. Maybe it’s a few words, or a colour, statement or texture. This essence forms the basis of a design, and a good designer will play with this to create a garden that speaks strongly both as response to the site and as a celebration of the relationship between the gardener/owner and the landscape. This allows plenty of room for experimentation, interpretation, and perhaps my favourite design element, surprise. As long as potentially incongruous elements amplify and/or resonate with the essence of the site and design, they’ll work.

So, my weird plants will go on sitting in their holding bay next to a fancy new Dendrobium speciosum (an endemic native orchid species) until their stories can be woven into the fabric of the place. The dendrobium, on the other hand, looks right at home here, on top of an old sandstone wall. No need for distillation of design philosophies and ideas for it to fit in… The weirdos will require a little more effort on my part.

I’ve got time, anyway. We’ve got no water so there’s no point planting just yet. I should be using this time for planning, distilling and designing but I’ll probably spend it dreaming.

You know where to find me. I’ll be down by the water, listening to the stories of old mother casuarina and her tribe of saplings as they sing the songs of the river and the land.