Jess Hood is a Gardener of the Mind

It’s drizzling with rain as we pull up at Maranoa Gardens in North Balwyn, Melbourne. We park behind a red car, from which Dr Jess Hood steps out, all red hair, red lipstick and brown eyes. We throw on our raincoats, grab our umbrellas and head into the wilderness of one of Australia’s oldest native gardens for a walk and talk about plants, gardens as archives and history.

Jess is an artist, writer and thinker. Her day job involves working at the National Trust as a community advocate – where she contributes to campaigns focusing on significant gardens and landscapes, as well as managing the National Trust Significant Tree Register (my dream job). In her spare time, she volunteers as the Vice-Chairperson of the National Management Committee of the Australian Garden History Society. Yep, she’s a mover and shaker.

Gardens weren’t always part of the picture for Jess. After high school she studied a bachelor of fine arts, then a master’s degree. She launched from there straight into a PhD. It was during her research project that gardens emerged as a place for Jess to explore ideas around culture, history and memory. “My doctoral research, titled Garden/Archive: photographic relation and exchange worked with an idea of the garden as archive by relating photography to an experience of the garden itself,” she explains.

She traipsed around the Adelaide Botanic Gardens armed with a bunch of black and white lantern slides of trees in the gardens, taken around 1920, sourced from the gardens’ archive. Jess explored the way the photographic record of each tree shaped her experience of the space itself, and from there embarked on reproducing the tree portraits. “My project was about much more than outlining and recording a history for the trees and garden photographed; it was about actively taking part in that history, being part of its renewal, questioning how it is, and continues to be recorded in the future,” she suggests.

It was during this time Jess decided to join the Australian Garden History Society (AGHS). “I didn’t know a lot about garden history but increasingly my art practice was drawing me to it as a topic so I thought, why not?” Jess tells me.

I’m drawn to garden history because there’s a heritage that comes with a garden that’s different to any other. It encapsulates something else – a sense of cultivation, of care, perhaps.”

Jess is young, just 30 years old. She doesn’t fit the typical demographic of a vice-chairperson of a historical society. Regardless of age, she’s clearly passionate about her role. She speaks of the importance of wider understanding of historical landscapes, encouraging increased advocacy, nominating important gardens for state and national heritage lists, and the AGHS generally being a strong voice for the protection, preservation, and celebration of important cultural landscapes.

The rain has subsided and we’re still wandering through the gardens, talking about the relationship between gardens, history and time. Unlike an old building, a historic garden cannot be bought back to its prime, can’t be restored to what it once was. Nor should it, according to Jess. “Gardens aren’t spaces that should be stagnant. They’re always in flux. Because of this they’re very different to manage than a building,” Jess says.

Rather than pointing back to a time, a historic garden is one that speaks of a time and place very clearly.”

“For me, gardens are important culturally because they’re living spaces,” Jess says, as we return to our cars. “Within them there’s all sorts of human connections. They both capture these connections, and in a sense, are archives of them.”

The garden is a boundless archive like no other, ripe for gardeners of the mind like Jess Hood to explore, understand, and interpret. Because as British landscape architect and historian Tom Turner suggests, “Physically, gardens must have boundaries. Mentally, they can reach to the limits of the known universe.”

This story was produced with support from The Australian Garden History Society (AGHS). AGHS is committed to promoting awareness and conservation of significant cultural landscapes through engagement, research, advocacy and activities. Please check out their website for more information on who they are, what they do, and why they’re a great bunch of people.

Also, if you want to get access to the best gardens, Australias most interesting garden thinkers, and support an organisation focused on protecting and celebrating Australia’s cultural landscapes, perhaps you should consider joining AGHS?