Friday, 19 June 2009

A sense of place

I’ve been intermittently watching a series on television called “Around the World in Eighty Gardens.” In it, the charming and eccentric (and English of course) Monty Don travels around the world looking at gardens. The series has been panned by some critics for not being about the plants, or rather about gardening. This misses the point that it is a show about garden design.

One of Don’s overarching themes is the idea of gardens having a sense of place. He adores gardens that draw from a local vernacular and abhors gardens that simply replicate ideas from other places in the world. He feels very strongly that a garden should arise out of a local culture and understanding of place rather than be about themes and ideas fashionable on the international circuit. As a result, he has visited some fascinating gardens: some delightful, some outrageous (to my perspective) but the best ones firmly grounded in their own history and culture.

While in Australia, he visited a garden in the Southern Highlands of NSW that pretended to be an English garden. High hedges of English plants were structured to block out vistas of gum trees and dry grass. Inside the hedges was a lush, but formally controlled English garden. While it was beautiful in a formal sort of way, it is entirely alien to our continent. Other gardens he visited here were much more attuned to our dry, difficult land through embracing native plants, grasses, rocks, and strong lines.

The series has really resonated with me for two reasons. One is that our garden is a work-in-progress and I love thinking of new ideas for it. The other is that this second book is about how people develop a sense of place. I’m interested in what helps such a sense grow and what can undermine it. Given that most people in this area were farmers, some of the ideas that Don talks about are relevant.

This book is about the Jaeckel’s new life in Australia and the inevitable steps forward and backward to feeling like they are Queenslanders. I want the third book to be about how migrants can have a strong sense of place and ownership and for this to be disputed. By the third book, World War One is in progress and the Germans of Marburg are being made to feel very German and very alien, rather than welcomed and valued migrants.

As always, everything is grist to the mill of my imagination. Or is it simply self-justification for why I’m sitting down and watching television?

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