My most recent car has sensors in every direction, so if I get too close to anything, on any side, I’m given stern warning. It’ll even slam the brakes on, if the detected item is in my current trajectory. Every now and again it over-reacts, and the instantaneous wondering about whether I’ve just done something dangerous myself leaves my heart pounding, quickly moving to confusion and indignation about the temporary over-riding of my sovereignty.
I’m convinced that in a very similar way, we have sensors – mostly visual, some audible, and perhaps some beyond explanation – whereby we’re constantly reading how we feel in a garden space, and particularly how we compare in relative size to the plants and buildings around us. The result of all these subconscious calculations and algorithms is that we instantly know whether we feel dwarfed, or uncomfortably exposed and over-sized in our surroundings, or just right. It’s a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland effect.
It’s now thirty years since I first visited the then internationally famous garden created by Rosemary Verey at Barnsley House, in Gloucester. I’d thoroughly marinated in images of this magical garden for several years, and was looking forward to taking my own pics to match those burnt deep into my mental hard-drive (why do we do this? I can’t figure it out, but nearly everyone does). I vividly remember looking back at the house, along the much-photographed irish-yew-lined, cobbled path into which was scattered random plantings of helianthemums. It was a huge anticlimax. I felt like I was in a 2/3 scale model of the real thing. The Irish yews, which I’d always assumed were thoroughly over my head, were in reality only just at my eye height. Instead of being comfortably framed by them – being right inside the space they defined – I felt like I overlooked them. I dwarfed them. Clearly the pics I’d seen had been taken holding the camera at about waist height, so as to make them appear larger than they were.
This all comes to mind just now, as I’m cutting down last summer’s seed heads of the many plants of Stipa gigantea in my Steppe garden. All that’s left to cut is their sparse, bare, skeletal stems that radiate gently outwards, to about six foot in height, from each grassy clump. In doing so, the whole feeling of the garden is altered.
This defies easy explanation. The plants are, by now, very nearly transparent, but in removing them it’s clear that those weightless, diaphanous forms were shaping and moulding the space around me in ways I hadn’t fully understood. In their removal, I feel a bit exposed, and distinctly out of proportion – too tall, by far – for the planting that now sits entirely down at around knee-height.
I’d by lying if I tried to sound surprised by this. I planted the Stipa precisely to provide a sense of human proportion to a planting that otherwise was going to concentrate wholly on low plants, but I’m always baffled by just how effective they are at the job, even when they’re long dead and wind-stripped, and how much I miss their whispered hint of spatial definition when they’re cut down.
Whether we feel entirely in, or just on, or on the edge of, or totally engulfed by, a garden is one of the strongest perceptions we can receive from it. I can’t for the life of me understand why it’s so rarely spoken or written of. This all-important sense is nearly always read from, or ‘received from’ surrounding trees or, in the city or the ‘burbs, from buildings. But I don’t know that I’ll ever quite overcome the confoundedness I feel that that same feeling can be created, or managed, by something as transient and transparent as a clump of tall grass flowers.
Those kind of mysteries are what keep this whole game eternally engaging.