We recently moved out of New York City to leafier climes in the Hudson Valley. This is my favorite part of the world. I have roots here. My mother grew up in the town where we settled. My grandparents were ceramic artists and figures of some importance in Midcentury Modern design. They had their studio and factory here. I went to school about an hour north. My wife and I are expecting our third child now. I am grateful for this to be their home.
Fall is in the air. Cold weather seems to have followed me back from England. There is a fire blazing in the hearth. This is the finest season in New York: comfortable, nostalgic, melancholy, beautiful.
Washington Irving, our greatest writer, sets the scene:
It was, as I have said, a fine autumnal day; the sky was clear and serene, and nature wore that rich and golden livery which we always associate with the idea of abundance. The forests had put on their sober brown and yellow, while some trees of the tenderer kind had been nipped by the frosts into brilliant dyes of orange, purple, and scarlet…As Ichabod jogged slowly on his way, his eye…ranged with delight over the treasures of jolly autumn.
The Victorians inherited from the Georgians a glorious tradition of landscape gardening, both in the Neoclassical and the more naturalistic Romantic styles. The landscape gardens of the eighteenth century had been projects of the nobility, located on the great country estates. These projects were of course ongoing in the nineteenth century, but the Victorian period witnessed a blossoming of horticulture in the commons, characterized by the proliferation of public gardens and small-scale formal gardens in middle-class homes.
According to English Heritage, “An extraordinary number of innovations in the study, cultivation and display of plants were made during the Victorian period. At the same time there was an explosion of interest in gardening, which became a national obsession.” Most notably, “Advances in the way plants were transported and transplanted meant that botanists were able to raise specimens imported from all over the world.”
Early Victorian gardens were characterized by formalism and artifice. The influential garden designer, botanist, and writer John Claudius Loudon led fashion away from the Romantic style which had accentuated and imitated nature. Loudon believed that garden design should be asserted as an art with bold use of exotic plants and geometric design. He popularized the term “landscape architecture.”
Loudon was an advocate of public gardens and greenbelts. Like his American counterpart, Frederick Law Olmsted, later in the century, he believed that parks should be incorporated into cities through urban planning. Loudon designed what is often described as Britain’s first public park, the Derby Arboretum. According to English Heritage, “Urban parks” were “created in response to concern about overcrowding and the condition of the poor.” These public gardens were similar to their private counterparts in “layout and planting, but with amenities such as bandstands and tea houses.” Loudon coined the word arboretum for a botanic garden in which trees, both indigenous and exotic, were cultivated and studied.
The systematic cultivation of plants became a serious endeavor throughout the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Botanic gardens were established in colonies throughout the world to meet agricultural, medicinal, and economic needs. The earliest of these had been established in the eighteenth century. Jim Endersby writes, in The Financial Times, that
St Vincent, in the West Indies, was the first colony to found such a garden (in 1765), and Britain’s East India Company decided it would be profitable to found one at Calcutta soon after (1787).
Eventually, there would be a network of gardens that spanned the globe, which would prove vital to the British Empire, allowing vital crops like rubber and cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was extracted) to be collected outside the empire and moved to colonies where they could be grown profitably. (Think about all those rubber trees that now form forests in southeast Asia; their scientific name is Hevea brasiliensis, meaning “from Brazil”.)
Back in England around the same time the royal pleasure gardens at Kew were being transformed into a center for scientific cultivation under King George III. That great monarch (much maligned by the wicked) appointed his horticultural advisor Sir Joseph Banks to the directorship of Kew Gardens in 1797. Banks envisioned Kew as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire.” To that end he coordinated ambitious programs of exchange between the many fledgling botanic gardens throughout the colonies.
By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne Kew Gardens had fallen on hard times. After King George III they had been neglected. The government was considering a plan to close Kew in order to save money. Endersby writes,
In 1838, the botanist John Lindley was asked to report on the plan, but instead of closure, he proposed the government should remove the garden from royal control and run it directly. His rationale was that there were already “many gardens in British Colonies and dependencies . . . in Calcutta, Bombay, Sahranpur, in the Isle of France [Mauritius], at Sydney, and in Trinidad, costing many thousands a year”. Yet, the value of these gardens “is very much diminished by the want of some system under which they can all be regulated and controlled”. Yet if proper co-ordination could be established, the empire’s gardens were “capable of conferring very important benefits upon commerce and . . . colonial prosperity”.
The government accepted Lindsey’s recommendations and in 1840 Kew was adopted as a national botanic garden. Under this arrangement it flourished as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire” first proposed by Banks. The scale and efficiency with which exotic plants were imported during the nineteenth century made them available to individual home gardeners as well as professionals.
The style and philosophy of landscape gardening changed subtly at the fin de siècle. The gardens of the Late Victorian period emphasized the vernacular and domestic. Designers eschewed the extreme artifice of both the Classical and faux-natural Romantic styles in favor of the homely, practical, and lovely. “Let there be some formalism about the house to carry on the geometric lines and enclosed feeling of architecture,” advised Henry Avray Tipping, the architectural editor of Country Life magazine, but let us step shortly from that into wood and wild garden.” Tippering was speaking in 1928 but he was describing an ideal that had been established in the 1880s and 1890s. The primary influence was the Arts and Crafts movement associated with John Ruskin and William Morris.
Helena Gerrish in The English Gardenwrites, “Beyond the formal ‘outside rooms’ that were viewed from the house, the Arts & Crafts garden gave way to the landscape, with rock gardens leading to woodland glades, and wild areas with rustic paths and water gardens.” According to English Heritage, “The interest in vernacular architecture encouraged by the Arts and Crafts movement led designers to imitate cottage gardens by reviving long-neglected plants…It embodied the respect for the past which the Victorians maintained, even at their most innovative and experimental.”
The closest thing to an artistic manifesto of Victorian horticulture can be found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden. Written at the end of the Edwardian era, it tells the story of a young English girl, Mary, who is sent to live with her uncle at his estate, Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire, after her parents die in India. Her uncle, Mr Craven, is frequently absent and Mary is left to her own devises. Exploring the grounds of the house she discovers a walled garden that has been locked. She learns that her aunt died in an accident in the garden years before and her uncle had it closed off in his grief. With the help of a local boy named Dickon, she opens the garden and begins to tend it. Meanwhile at night Mary hears mysterious cries coming from somewhere in the manor. She searches the halls by candlelight and discovers her cousin Colin, a sickly boy confined to his bed, and treated as a hopeless invalid by the servants.
What thus begins as a Gothic novel with all the classic elements of the genre soon blossoms into something entirely different. In her essay, “Re-Reading The Secret Garden,” Madelon Gohlke writes, “The conversations between Mary and the uncanny Colin in which she systematically opposes his conviction that he is going to die parallel the coming of spring and the awakening of life in the garden.” Mary and Dickon draw Colin out of his sick bed and into the garden where the three children spend an idyllic season and nature works to restore them body and soul together with the vegetation. Mr Craven returns to find his son healthy and the garden in bloom. Gohlke write, “At the center of this image, of course, is the garden, the place where the secrets of life, growth, and all the richness of feeling are located and then revealed.” The garden “is both the scene of a tragedy, resulting in the near destruction of a family, and the place of regeneration and restoration of a family.”
These were the ideas associated with gardening, then as now: the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, its cycles, and its latent spirituality.
Burnett, Frances Hodgson. (1911) The Secret Garden. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.
Endersby, Jim. (July 25, 2014) “How botanical gardens helped to establish the British Empire.” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/dcd33da0-0e69-11e4-a1ae-00144feabdc0
Gerrish, Helena. (September 1, 2016) “Edwardian Garden Style.” The English Garden, http://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk/expert-advice/design-solutions/design-edwardian-garden-style/
Gohlke, Madelon S. (April, 1980) “Re-Reading the Secret Garden.” College English. Vol. 41, No. 8.
Various. (2017) “Victorians: Landscape.” English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/landscape/
In The New York Review of Books this month Freeman Dyson reviewsScale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West. Dyson offers insight into why small cities and villages have historically produced men of genius and why the present-day trend toward mega-cities is almost certainly dysgenic.
If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.
A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry).
These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations. In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift. The examples that I mentioned all belong to Western cultures. No doubt similar starbursts of genius occurred in other cultures, but I am ignorant of the details of their history.
West’s neglect of villages as agents of change raises an important question. How likely is it that significant numbers of humans will choose to remain in genetically isolated communities in centuries to come?
I read a fascinating article recently about the German forest ranger and ecologist Peter Wohlleben in The New York Times. Wohlleben is the author of a book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and is featured in the documentary film, Intelligent Trees. His observations about arboreal biology are exciting and even startling:
trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
Obviously this is a type of life and “society” quite different from our own. But trees are living creatures. I imagine it would benefit our understanding of them to consider the ways in which they behave like living creatures, not inanimate objects.
Reading this profile of Wohlleben reminded me of a writer who shared a similar outlook on nature: J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien portrayed trees as possessing various degrees of sentience, and as being shepherded by Ents, a race of tree-like giants. His imagination was informed by a deep sympathy with the forest, and a perception that trees were conscious on some mysterious level.
In 1972 the Daily Telegraph published an article which contained the description of a landscape “transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings.” In a letter to the editor, published a few days later, Tolkien replied,
I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.