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Mirror! MIrror! Tell me, can you see my garden?
  
by Stephanie Kirkwood Walker
 

With my fingers deep in soil and my arms brushing back crowding plants, the appearance of order in my small urban garden mimics a comfortable universe. Here in southern Ontario, occasionally, I am able to find an allied peace; nature trails, the shores of the Great Lakes, and small picturesque towns are never further than an hour or two by car, along routes which pass through fields with reassuring patterns that suggest little has changed across the years.

Kristin Mesley's Giant's Orb.
Kristin Mesley's
Giant's Orb
.
Photo by S.K. Walker.

Kristin Mesley's Self-portrait.
Kristin Mesley's
Self-portrait
.
Photo by S.K. Walker.

Kristin Mesley's Candlestick.
Kristin Mesley's Candlestick.
Photo by S.K. Walker.

Kristin Mesley's Garden Balls. Kristin Mesley's Garden Balls.
Photo by S.K. Walker.

Philip Sommer's Table.
Philip Sommer's Table.
Photo by P. Sommer.

Philip Sommer's Zen Brutalism.
Philip Sommer's Zen Brutalism.
Photo by P. Sommer.

Jo-Anne Harder's Garden Disc.
Jo-Anne Harder's Garden Disc.
Photo by J. Harder.

Jo-Anne Harder's Garden Instrument.
Jo-Anne Harder's Garden Instrument.
Photo by J. Harder.

Yet, equally close lies the overburdened, under-designed transportation corridor that runs from Detroit to Montreal. Roaring evidence of expanding population, particularly around Toronto, its crowded lanes generate tensions that easily stretch to embrace other pressures, like the loss of arable land, or the recent terror of contaminated municipal water systems, or the increasing frequency of smog alerts. And so it is that when I am away from my garden, and beyond its influence, the satisfactions of my earthy tasks can seem odd pleasures, and the enchantment of its design becomes as much a puzzle as a delight.

Recently, on a quest for ornament for this garden of mine, I was struck by the deliberation with which we give shape to the physical world. Whether measured by aboriginal myths, the paradisal longings of settlers or surveyors' chains, visions from other times have left marks that code natural features around us, enriching our perception of the land. Rivers and hills, forests, towns, streets and gardens, all are wrapped in language and embedded in the romance of local tales. Such a vocabulary serves the contemporary gardening world—in print, on specialty television channels, through garden tours and in nurseries. Whether the words, images, and other paraphernalia entice us with real meaning, the kind that can make our earthbound condition a puzzle worth solving, is arguable. Nonetheless, traditionally gardens have been retreats from the chaos of a world in flux and, according to J. B. Jackson, they "teach us more than we are aware of." Certainly in their broad schemes and intricate details, great garden traditions do articulate order. The enclosed gardens of medieval Europe, protected by walls and tightly planned so all necessary plants could grow, met a hierarchy of needs from contemplation to burial; they shut out chaos to more easily sustain hope. Miniature features of Chinese gardens—the caves, stones, pools and trees—reflect the abode of the gods and, at their zenith, Britain's great landscape parks sanctioned a society of progress and privilege. Yet even with these examples, which hint at metaphysical harmonies, terms for a garden or landscape philosophy, one that can engage both the bold sciences of our new century and the pleasures of ordinary existence, remain elusive.

Aerial photography and images of the earth from space have raised the stakes: what was once perceived as the mirroring of above and below has become a clouded and tenuous endeavour. However polished our language, it scarcely matches challenges to our sense of place. Outer space, hyperspace, cyberspace, too little space in a crowded world, or too much in an expanding universe: which, if any of these, matter in a small rural paradise, or a newly greened city? In The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Margaret Wertheim makes our predicament clear:

Not only are we for all practical purposes alone in our vast relativistic space, we are also in a profound sense nowhere.... There is no place special to be. Unlike the medieval cosmos in which every place had an intrinsic value (depending on its proximity to God), the equations of general relativity encode no sense of value.

That the question of where we are, in all its existential glory, does not weigh heavily on all gardeners, even some of the time, offers solace, and a starting point. Fine historical and public gardens, your garden and mine are, according to our own experience, some place. Even so, in other times and places the meaning of gardens and the shape of hills have fit into the broad natural order more easily. For us, now, the equations are difficult. No longer a primary source of food, our gardens may exist simply for pleasure and peace of mind. Abundant plant materials set few limits on our designs; styles, always a matter of exposure and choice, come before us in such profusion they can seem unhitched from meaning. In circumstances like these our efforts will not necessarily please us less, but for them to do more than merely please, for them to offer substantial meaning and mirror our place in the universe, a strategy of some kind seems appropriate.

While these thoughts were circling in my mind, my family moved to an old house in the centre of town, leaving behind quarters on the expansive grounds of a university campus set down in farmers' fields in the 1960s. Gone were the vistas; in exchange we had a small garden, with towering trees, surrounded by similarly scaled, carefully configured yards. Barely had we settled in when a change in one of the neighbouring gardens challenged my newly born and fragile sense of mindful proximity. Looking southward through the thin northern flank of our cedar hedge, we saw a bold white garden shed where previously only sunlight had filtered through. Unfortunately, deep shade and the presence of underground cables discouraged an easy response, like shrubs or fencing. Ornament perhaps: something to catch the eye before the hedge, and then the shed, came into focus. But what?

As luck would have it, three sculptors soon appeared, singly, all with deep rural roots; their work would push away any easy assumption I might have held that the mirroring of above and below was a simple metaphor. My first inkling of new understanding began when an elegantly proportioned obelisk caught my eye at Toronto's huge spring arts and crafts show, One-of-a-Kind. Made from strong bands of industrial steel, it solved my immediate problem and now attracts any eye that might otherwise seek that once bold garden shed. Entitled Giant's Orb, in low light its tall skeletal silhouette, reminiscent of armillary spheres, marks out territory against the dark mass of the cedar hedge. That my grasp of mindful proximity has remained intact is due in no small measure to the strength of this artifact. Even now my restless eyes will settle on its surface and pause, as if some mystery, still obscure, might be solved.

An urge to know more about the artist took me to Kristin Mesley's studio in the countryside near Elora, a scenic village on the Grand River. That she had studied and taught design came as no surprise. The evidence was all around me in the strong clean lines of large garden pieces wrought in combinations of metal, stone, concrete and wood. What did surprise me was the effect of vivid childhood memories of the farm machinery that her father sold as a dealer. When she spoke of the scale and complexity of threshers and combines, and of her pleasure in finding manufactured steel tubing for her designs, the surfaces and shapes of her work gained meaning. My Giants Orb, now gathering a patina of rust in the shade of the cedar hedge, carries with it not just traces of measured celestial space but, invisibly embedded in its ligaments, the hybrid spirit of rural and industrial Ontario.

In Toronto again a few months later, I was stopped in my tracks at Canada Blooms, another megashow, by Philip Sommer's dramatic installation of iron, stone and water, cryptically displayed as Zen Brutalism. Before me water gushed from the centre of a large rock raised a few inches over a gravel bed by an inconspicuous metal grate. The mass of granite seemed airborne. Water spread across its surface, then over and down its sides, filling the air with sound and moisture as it fell onto the gravel. Oxidized iron posts rose from the corners of the installation, for eight feet or so, coming together in a finely proportioned rectangle of parallel bars. I took away a card which read, "Zen Brutalism: Sculptural structures for intimate gardens and other contemplative spaces."

The words were like directional magnets. On a sunny afternoon in early fall I met Philip at his studio in the small community of Dungannon, near enough to Lake Huron to give water and rock an essential place in his art. I learned that he had been born in China while his parents were there working on flood relief for the Mennonite Central Committee. Coming to Canada in 1970, having grown up in farming communities in Paraguay and the United States, he brought with him a developed comprehension of simplicity. Zen Brutalism is his term: Zen for "simple austerity, an aesthetic attitude encouraging selfless tranquillity;" Brutalism for that movement in architecture that "asserted the primacy of elements—space, structure, materials exposed in their untrammelled form." In a studio filled with serenity, glass, stone and metal he wondered, laughing, if the phrase always has the effect he intends. I suspect it does, sooner or later.

Thus far I had glimpsed two artists' creative lives, and in their stories sensed intentions born in their early rural years. The surfaces of Kristin's careful forms made her design processes palpable; in Philip's sculptures resistance to deliberate artfulness had immense appeal. Balancing the differences between the two approaches was effortless and restorative. However to force my thoughts, like bulbs in winter, back to the matter of the cosmos, mirrors, and available landscape templates, there was an encounter with a third sculptor.

On a rainy fall day later that year, I headed out along country roads to a studio near Arthur, still in southern Ontario, where Jo-Anne Harder works with found metals. Abstract, often figurative, sometimes whimsical, her sculptures tie response to a delicate scale. Set in the shelter of the barn's overhang, where once cattle stood, or allowed to weather in her garden, her pieces drew my attention to the fields beyond. Other generations had lived upon the land differently but with a similar respect. As we sat drinking tea in the log house she and her husband designed and built, I listened to her ideas on the shape of gardens, heard accounts of artworks they had collected, and was reminded of a phrase Italo Calvino had used—"thoughtful lightness"—to describe an approach to words or living that makes "frivolity seem dull and heavy." Jo-Anne spoke of the influence of music on her work, of bringing materials and intuition together in layers of expression and response. As I looked at the range of her work, conveniently set out for an upcoming studio tour, lyrical seemed to be an appropriate adjective, so too harmony and balance, but the word that stayed with me as I drove away was repetition—the return of a melody, of a form, of a thought, of the sensation of gardens. And with return, delight, ...or lightness. I still did not understand the tie between gardens, or landscapes, and cosmologies in the present but the mystery was more comfortably complex.


Philip Sommer's Iron Vessel.
Photo by P. Sommer.

The work of all three sculptors, each gesturing toward the centrality of ornament in an understanding of location, had pulled me beyond the boundaries of my town. I was ready to return to my small garden, ready too for the voice of science when it came. Trying to match contemporary philosophies and landscape, on a lazy afternoon on the Internet, I came upon Stephen Hawking's Universe, a PBS Online website. There physicist Michio Kaku, describing his own intimations of hyperspace, recalled many visits to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. He explained that as a child he spent long hours fascinated by carp in a shallow pond who were "totally oblivious to the universe above them." And, cosmologist that he is, he wondered how a "carp scientist" might know of our existence! "One day it rained, and I saw the rain drops forming gentle ripples on the surface of the pond. Then I understood. The carp could see rippling shadows on the surface of the pond." At this point Kaku flipped his metaphor and imagined us "swimming in our pond, blissfully unaware of invisible, unseen universes hovering just above us in hyperspace." Repeated contemplation. Of course! For all of us landscapes and gardens can reveal meaning over time, with continuous effort on our part. Even more important for my speculations on ornament was a sudden realisation that Kaku did not contemplate the entire garden as a mirror to the universe, but only one feature within it to which he returned, again and again. My three sculptors had prepared me: I recognized in Kaku's recollection an effective and simple strategy, one that invites the cosmos into the garden, into a very familiar place, to restore pattern and perhaps provoke the fiery breath of genius.

Jo-Anne Harder's garden.
Jo-Anne Harder's garden.
Photo by S.K. Walker.

As the history of landscape design matures and becomes more widely available, so too does the temptation to know more, to pursue meaning along garden paths as though the large pattern holds a necessary key. Yet a deep visceral pleasure, a necessary pleasure, lies in the repeated contemplation of the surfaces, layers, and density of significant forms. It is a pleasure not unlike the feel of fingers in soil, and it binds things together just as the metaphorical celestial mirror once did. A pleasure and a strategy, repeated contemplation of local landscapes—our gardens or streets or fields nearby—might calm threatening tensions in the present, even set aside impatient desire for a comfortable universe, and perhaps bring intimations of good sense.

  

Concepts of space, particularly in the arts, and the nature of the self, particularly in biography, shape Stephanie Kirkwood Walker's work. Currently, she is putting the finishing touches on Landscapes of the Heart, a documentary on Latin American women establishing new lives in central Canada. In This Woman in Particular: Contexts for the Biographical Image of Emily Carr (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996), she examined the cultural function of biography through versions of the life of this one woman, told in several media, whose art and writing have profoundly influenced perceptions of Canada's west coast.

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References.
 
 

Calvino, Italo. 1998. Six Memos for the Next Millenium. Harvard University Press. Pg. 10.

Jackson, J.B. 1994. A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time. Yale University Press. Pg. 123.

Wertheim, Margaret. 1999. The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. W.W. Norton. Pg. 185.
 

 
     
    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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