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Shades of Paradise

by Jane Billinghurst

     Ever since the first person planted a seed then watched pale shoots explode into green, humans have felt deeply connected to their gardens. Where survival depended on fruitful crops, gardens were a link to the divine. Demeter was the Greek goddess of the bountiful harvest; the Maya had the handsome young maize god, his hair glowing golden in the autumn light. As the earth blossomed into abundance, gardeners thanked the spirits for nurturing both their bodies and their souls. In the temple gardens at Assur, flower beds provided bright, fragrant offerings for the gods of the Assyrians. Desert dwellers corralled water, planting trees to banish heat and offer respite. For ancient myth makers, gardens were the calm at the center of a threatening world, oases that sheltered heroes during their travels. Many religions portray the garden as the closest place to paradise on Earth.

     Through the centuries, in gardens protected by stone walls, fences, and hedges, people have shaped the natural environment to meet their needs, pursue their desires, and reflect their values. Mughal emperors favored geometric patterns, with whispering water, heady fragrances, and luscious fruit, to conjure up visions of the world they hoped to enter after death. Le Nôtre laid out the grand avenues of the Sun King’s gardens atVersaillesas a testament to human supremacy over Nature. Chinese scholars looked for rocks sculpted by currents deep in Lake Tai, seeking to bring the forces of Tao into their gardens. Healers everywhere cultivated medicinal herbs to treat the sick.

     From the beginning, gardens have inspired imaginative responses, and not only from those who labor to create them. Using brush and paint, European botanical observers meticulously recorded the hues, textures, and wonders of precious tulips from Turkey, startling canna lilies from the West Indies, and exotic Abyssinian bananas. In all parts of the world, in thread, clay, and stone, on vases and vellum, artists have recreated the garden’s intricate patterns, sweeping vistas, and shady corners. Poets, novelists, and memoirists have celebrated the garden’s beauty, explored its mysteries, and lamented the frustrations it can bring. A creative exchange exists between those who actually make gardens and those who imagine them in other ways. In Italy, Renaissance gardeners consulted Pliny’s descriptions of his villa gardens and the poetry of Virgil when creating their extravagant villa gardens. The designers of Romantic and Picturesque gardens in England—with their idealized scenes of temples set in groves of trees—looked to the landscape paintings of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain for inspiration. William Morris, in 1881, likened embroidery to “gardening with silk and gold threads.” The fabrics and wallpapers he designed transported the swirl of vines and the explosive colors of the garden into the home.

     Above all, gardens promise us pleasure. A garden engages our senses as soon as we step into it. Sounds soothe, colors delight, tastes satisfy, textures arrest. Every time we visit a garden, the kaleidoscope has shifted. A once-gentle stream now gushes in a torrent, scarlets have erupted from tightly closed buds, soft green has turned lustrously dark, tart flavors have mellowed, fragrance fills the air. Gardens, those places of social comment, aesthetic satisfaction, and emotional and spiritual connection, are also places where we quite simply live. We walk through them for exercise. We hold parties against backdrops of roses and honeysuckle. We sun ourselves amidst the petunias or curl up with a book in willow-patterned shade. No matter if it stretches for acres or is no bigger than a pocket handkerchief, the garden offers us joy, contemplative quiet, surprising revelations, and womblike protection.

     When I moved to Washington State five years ago from the Canadian prairies, I had the luxury of starting my garden from scratch. I knew stately English landscape gardens from my youth, but the village where I spent my childhood had cottage gardens crammed with bachelor’s buttons, forget-me-nots, and love-in-a-mist with hollyhocks shooting up through the chaos. These tightly planted, riotous spaces remain my favorite kind of garden. As soon as I had settled into my new home, I wanted hollyhocks—and holly and ivy, so that I could decorate the house at Christmas as we had when I was young. But hollyhocks suffer from rust in the Pacific Northwest, and holly and ivy escape to wreak havoc in the forest.

     Instead, I learned to negotiate with my surroundings. Now, beyond a relatively manicured patio, my flower garden fades into a background of shrubs sturdy enough to enjoy regular pruning by deer. The shrubs give way to a disarray of hardhack, thimbleberry, and Nootka rose that I leave to the birds to seed. My garden is where I go on a summer evening to relax, surrounded by industrious bees and garter snakes soaking up the warmth of the day. I enjoy inviting people in to take a seat among the rhododendrons, heathers, or Japanese anemones, depending on the season. I have found a balance that works for me in my garden—at least for now.

     Whenever I travel, gardens beckon. By accident or design, I have found myself in experimental gardens at Chaumont-sur-Loire; classical Chinese gardens in Suzhouand Shanghai; Japanese gardens in Portland,Oregon, and Albuquerque,New Mexico. William Kent’s masterpiece of English landscape design at Rousham. The meticulously restored Gertrude Jekyll gardens at the Manor House at Upton Grey. Sonoran desert gardens in Arizona. Abandoned subsistence gardens on Village Island near Alert Bay,British Columbia. Gardens in New Zealand, Sweden, Chicago, California, and Montreal. Gardens great and small, intricate and simple. Each one expresses an idea, a point of view, a vision. And each, in its own way, is beautiful.

     A lifetime isn’t long enough to visit all the gardens we’d like to see. For me, the next best thing to being in a garden is to imagine being in one. In this book, I invite you to explore how others have envisioned, executed, and enjoyed the ever-seductive idea of the garden.

Photo and Introduction to The Armchair Books of Gardens: A Miscellany by Jane Billinghurst.