Originally published at Substack, 8/29/2020
One of my major coping mechanisms during this … time has been Monty Don garden videos, especially his garden tours series: Around the World in 80 Gardens, French Gardens, Gardens of Italy, American Gardens. Most of them are available on YouTube, (with a few weird gaps) and it’s been an interesting crash course in the history of garden design, as well as a meditation on my favorite cluster of ideas: what is a garden? What is nature? What is the wild?
This is a photo of one of my favorite spots in the valley. It’s a concrete catchment where the irrigation ditch emerges after being funneled underground down 50 yards or so of very steep grade. I love the square angles and the hard concrete against the swishiness of the long grasses, and the tall cottonwood trees. I posted a couple of Instagram video clips of the peaceful gurgling the water makes as it emerges. I love the way this quotidian structure frames the ditch, which runs straight for a mile or so from this point. If I was a Fancy Person building a landscape garden in this place, this would be what I’d choose for a water feature.
The idea of what counts as landscape and what counts as garden really comes into play with the landscape garden tradition. Capability Brown is usually credited with implementing this mode of estate design in the 18th century. Of course, the very idea of the landscape garden is problematic, as it’s predicated on the consolidation of private land ownership and hence, deeply implicated in an exploitative capitalism from which we all still suffer. That a single landowner can sculpt the landscape itself to suit their aesthetic preferences implies a landscape devoid of people, or purpose. It is an ostentatious display of great wealth. A local analogue might be the American Prairie Reserve, which is doing interesting work in conservation and habitat restoration, but in service of a political vision that seeks to replace public lands with private ownership. And while the Monty Don garden tours are really interesting, the ones I found most compelling were when he visited smallholdings, and allotments, and people growing fruit and veg using methods that had evolved over a long period of time.
My father was a landscape architect, and his father was a nurseryman and landscaper as well. Once our parents divorced, my brother Patrick and I spent many a Saturday driving to job sites with Dad, looking at hills that had been sculpted into the flat Chicago landscape with bulldozers, checking the progress of artificial water drops at the entrances to housing developments and corporate headquarters all across suburbia. I can still spot those jobs when I’m back — the style is distinctive. And while my father had a good eye for design, one of the few things he and my mother actually shared, he wasn’t at all passionate about landscape architecture. He wasn’t even that interested in it. His father had told him he’d pay for college if Dad would do the LA program at Michigan State, and then he’d leave him the company. And so, my father became a landscape architect.
The landscape jobs he did never appealed to me because he was essentially working at an industrial scale. The projects weren’t particularly creative, the design vocabulary varied a little bit from job to job but for the most part they were working with a handful of plants, and a short palette of forms: ponds, bulldozed hills, small artificial waterfalls, a weeping willow, a couple of crabapple trees, some evergreens. (We did like playing with the rubber stamp sets at the office though — trees and bushes of many sizes and shapes. We designed many an office park on a boring afternoon waiting for Dad to finish whatever it was he was doing.)
I moved to Montana in 2002, but I don’t live in the Paradise Valley, where the irrigation ditch photo was taken, I live in the town of Livingston itself. The Paradise Valley runs south from town to Yellowstone park. The Yellowstone river runs along the bottom, and on the one side (seen in the photo) is the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, and on the other is the Gallatin Range. Livingston is at the head of the valley, where the river turns to the east. It’s an old railroad town, formerly the headquarters of the Northern Pacific railway, and because it was always transient, most houses don’t even have much yard. One reason I bought this house, was because there was a 15 x 25 foot overgrown vegetable garden in the backyard, along with several fruit trees.
This is not a landscape garden. My 1903 house sits on a typical 50 x 100 foot lot, with privacy fence down either side. I put a white picket fence in the front, and the back is a mix of fruit trees, a long perennial border that’s turning out to be pretty much shrub roses, and my large raised bed vegetable garden. It came with 4 apple trees and 2 plum trees and I’ve put in a lot of currant and gooseberry bushes. There’s a chicken coop and a shed that was once a garage for a Model T, but won’t fit any modern car. My vegetable garden is designed to be both pretty, and productive. In a good year, I can grow probably 80% of the vegetables I eat, especially on years like this when I’m a little panicky and so, I’m putting up greens and tomatoes for the freezer. But it has to be something I want to look at too. I’ve planted roses and iris around the cattle panel fence that keeps the pets and chickens out, and and lots of annuals in among the vegetables. Right now there are pink roses, sunflowers, nasturtiums from hot orange to palest yellow, deep orange marigolds with dark dark green foliage, lots of sunny yellow calendula and some borage to break up all those hot colors. There are so many greens — herbs and tomatoes and kales and chards and huge bushy pepper plants and spiky onions. It is a joy and a pleasure this garden, and it’s what I dreamed of all those years in rental apartments, when I grew tomatoes in pots, and flowers on balconies, and even grew a few greens and onions in the tiny veg patch behind the converted garage I lived in at 9000 feet elevation in Telluride.
I moved to a place of stupendous wild beauty, and I built a very domestic and pastoral garden. Is this a contradiction? There is a long strain in American nature writing that claims the domestic is the enemy of the wild, and that “the wild” is the only nature that really counts. I’ve been reading Derek Jarman these past few weeks, in particular Modern Nature, and I find it interestingthat for Jarman, one element of the wildness among which he gardened in Dungeness was the nuclear power plant in the background. The nuclear power plant didn’t negate the wildness of that location, it enhanced it.
There’s an idea that gardening is imposing order on nature, that it’s an imposition of human will on the natural world, but for me this has never really been the case. I garden using organic methods, and because I feel a moral obligation both to what was here when I bought the place and to anything I’ve planted, I more commonly feel that I’m obligated to my plants. That white shrub rose that somehow seeded itself in the back by the chicken coop, I could no more rip that up than I could murder my dog. It grew there. All by itself. It’s also a pretty nice plant, and so perhaps that’s why I don’t feel the same affection for the self-seeded box elder that shoots up every year, inconveniently through the slats of the large back gate where I load firewood for the winter. Every year when it’s time to load wood, I saw those shoots, sometimes 12 or 15 feet high, down to the ground. Same for the aspen shoots that come under the fence from my neighbor’s yard, and that would take over my veg patch if allowed. But for the most part, I feel less like someone making a plan and imposing it on the yard, than I do like someone who has planted some things, and is now responsible for their well being.
Next week we’ll come back to Derek Jarman. I’ve been circling around and around Modern Nature, which is a book about a garden built both firmly in the vernacular of the English garden, and one that explodes that vernacular in ways that also have something interesting to say about how we define the natural, and the wild. That Jarman built his garden in the early days of the AIDs pandemic that eventually took his life makes it feel somehow deeply relevant to our current situation. Or at least it feels relevant as I’m struggling to put some kind of framework of meaning around our current situation.
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