Like Tolstoy’s happy families, all gardens are alike … fundamentally. Of course, the Humes Stroll Garden would never be mistaken for, say, Dumbarton Oaks; and no one is going to be taken, blindfolded, to Chanticleer, have the mask removed, and think that he is in Bellefield. Size, style, history, level of theatricality – all these vary from one setting to another. But the building blocks are the same: a swath of land, designated and designed planting areas, and a ribbon or network of walkways to get you to things and around the place. It’s the similarities that define “garden”; it’s the differences that define “art” and “memorable.”
Of the elements that make up gardens, the one most overlooked and kicked around, literally, is the walkway. And, yet, it can be as vital to the entire garden-appreciation experience as the choice of perennials or the water feature. Where you view something and the way you move about it can be as intrinsic to pleasure and understanding as what is viewed: too close, too far, wrong angle, too high, too low, confusing circulation, too authoritarian a mandated traffic pattern – whether noticeably or subtly, all are ruiners.
But, even taking these characteristics into consideration and doing them smartly and well, most gardens we’ve been to – and we’ve just returned from a journey to some snazzy ones – seem to give little or no thought to what the walkways are made of. Gravel or cement, asphalt or mulch, or whatever, little preferential effort – beyond the imperative to keep visitors from stumbling over chunks of things – appears to have been invested in garden-path design. If anything, sometimes you can see ecological philosophy at work – permeable surface vs. non, natural material vs. manmade – but not much more.
Everything counts, god is in the details, blah, blah, blah. We all know this, or have been told it. But the walkway in a garden? Who cares, right? It’s only the flowers and plants and trees that matter, no? Nobody goes to a garden to see the paths. A path is just “there,” not there to note.
But what a lost opportunity for added expression, distinctive identity and artfulness of place. I will not, I know, hold in memory for long the patches of green and colors that we walked through at Thuya Garden and the nearby and related Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden, both on the ritzy south shore of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, beautiful though they were. What I will remember, and what I can see, vividly, in my mind’s eye even now, are the sculptural rakings of the crushed stone that makes up the gardens’ hardscape.
Early in the morning, before visitors arrive, a worker rakes the narrow paths in a way that would please and even elicit admiration from a Japanese garden’s master artist. At Thuya, especially, the sweetly crafted but nearly imperceptible patterns vary from place to place: here, serpentine; there, herringbone; beyond, cross-hatch – and variations and combinations of those, and others. More: Once one notices the path art, it is already too late to avoid destroying it – you see the beautifully rendered squiggles and geometry now obliterated by your shoeprints, and you feel like a criminal, a defiler. But you also know that the path art is, like most earthworks, like much of the work of an Andy Goldsworthy, for example, designed to be ephemeral, to fade and disappear with time and the vagaries of nature … and the unthinking perambulations of man.
(A parenthetical here: One would be incredibly remiss if, in this discussion, he did not mention the notable efforts evident in Robert Dash’s wonderful Madoo Conservancy, in Sagaponack, New York – an elegant, whimsical one-off of an artist-fashioned garden highlighted by its paths composed of varied, surprising and unlikely materials. Perhaps our eye towards the importance of paths in a garden was opened in our visit to this Long Island landmark.)
This path art is so easy to be unaware of as one focuses on the flora – why look down? We rarely do, and especially if we’ve come a great distance to look up – and, yet, it is that extra something, that act that says that everything counts, that makes that garden a more magical place … that is a key ingredient in the formulation of its placeness. Not an accessory, but integral; more than a pleasant surprise at a casual gift, but an imperative relationship. Man’s intellectual beauty paired with and enhancing the natural. Arslocii.