Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Garden Designer's Roundtable: Memory and Plants


NOSTALGIA: The idea that a plant or group of plants can evoke certain emotions based upon an evolved memory of the landscapes they are associated.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our emotional experience of landscapes.  Why do some landscapes make me feel relaxed and contemplative, while others make me nervous or uncomfortable?  Landscape architects, designers, and gardeners have long explored the aesthetic experience of landscapes, but rarely the emotional experience.

I was delighted that the Garden Designer’s Roundtable topic for the month is “Memory and Plants.”  It is the perfect excuse for dwelling a bit more deeply on a concept I’ve articulated before, but only partially.  I want to write about “nostalgia,” a word I’ve used to describe our emotional reaction to planting design. 

Why does this matter?  For me, understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes holds tremendous potential for all those who design or garden.  First, it pushes landscape design past the endless (and tiresome) pendulum swing of geometric vs. naturalistic (or formal vs. informal) design.  This fundamentally formalistic concern has distracted us from exploring the full potential of landscape as a dynamic art form.  Second, it offers designers a framework for understanding how to create emotional experiences within gardens and landscapes.

Plants, Memory, and Emotion

We are all likely to have very personal and subjective reactions to specific plants.  The scent of orange blossoms remind me of a winter afternoon I spent in a Dumbarton Oaks conservatory; Southern Magnolias remind me of a giant tree on my grandmother’s property I played in as a child.  These personal memories are poignant connections to plants, people, and places; but these subjective responses are not what I’m interested in here.



Emotions are fundamentally subjective, but I do believe that we share common evolutionary responses to our environment.  Think about walking down a path that bends behind a dark, contorted thicket.  What do you feel?  Fear?  Caution?  Perhaps even a tinge of curiosity?  The emotions may not be exactly the same as someone else, but they will share similar characteristics.  Have you ever hiked to the top of a mountain and looked out over the vista?  The pleasant feeling of scenery was described by British geographer Jay Appleton in his prospect-refuge theory, pointing out that we have a natural preference for environments we can easily see and navigate.

While environmental psychologists have long established the idea that there is an evolutionary basis for preferences for certain landscapes, few have extended that logic to the micro-scale of planting design. 

Think about it: we spent literally thousands of years navigating through field and forests.  We had an intimate connection to plants: they helped us navigate our environments, treat our wounds, and feed ourselves.  Knowing how to distinguish between an edible plant and non-edible plant was a matter of life or death.  It is only in the last 100 years or so of our species that we’ve been removed from the wild landscape. 

While we may no longer recognize plants like our ancestors, it is my belief that we still retain the vestiges of memory and emotion.  The exact memory may be gone, but we still have the primitive circuitry that produces emotions in response to our perception of safety or opportunity.  The same emotional responses we have to larger landscapes can also be associated with plants or combinations of plants.  When we see a certain plant or groups of plants, it can evoke the memory or feeling of a larger, natural landscape.  And the memory of that larger landscape produces an emotional response within us. 

A low grass may remind of us of a wide open, sunny space—like this field shown on the right.  And a space like this makes us feel a certain way.  


Big leaves may remind us of someplace wet, lush, and summery.  Like this bottomland forest shown on the right.  And lush, wet landscapes arouse their own unique associations.


A tight grouping of trees like these Sassafras at the U.S. Botanic Garden may evoke a hedgerow or naturalized agricultural landscape.  Like this grouping of Sassafras shown on the right (image by Rick Darke).  


We respond to these combinations at an intuitive level, even if they don’t know what they’re seeing.  University of Southern California neuroscientist, Antonio Damsio calls associations between reinforcing stimuli (such as a plant) and an associated physiological state (such as a euphoric feeling) a somatic marker.  Understanding how to exploit the emotional associations of plants can elevate planting design from the merely decorative to a meaningful art form. 

Design Opportunity

Nostalgia is my attempt to describe a design strategy that uses plant combinations to evoke larger landscapes.  By nostalgia, I do not mean that gardens should be backwards-looking.   Nor am I advocating a resurrection of any specific garden style. Gardens should speak to the zeitgeist and look to the future.  Nostalgia is a means of arranging plants to evoke larger landscapes (and thus, an emotional response we have in relation to that landscape).

The emotional response is the end goal of the design, but the exact emotion to be evoked in a design does not really matter.  People may have multiple, complex, and often contradictory emotions within a single garden.    In fact, the layering of emotions is what makes some landscapes compelling visit after visit.  A single landscape may have multiple reference points: a shaded section of a garden might evoke a woodland floor brimming with ephemerals, while a sunny border might evoke a forb-rich wet meadow.  What matters is the creativity of the association between plant combinations and wild landscapes.  In some situations, literally transposing the species and patterns of a naturally occurring plant community may create the strongest effect; in other situations, the incongruity of an unexpected plant (a big-leafed tropical dropped into a group of prairie perennials) may create a more robust effect.  What matters is the artistry of the arrangement.

The Paragon of Nostalgia: Piet Oudolf

The work of Piet Oudolf is perhaps the best example of "nostalgia" as a strategy for planting design. I have always felt an intensely emotional reaction to the few Oudolf landscapes I've visited.  This reaction is no accident.  "For me, garden design isn't just about plants, it is about emotion, atmosphere, a sense of contemplation," said Oudolf recently in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, "You try to move people with what you do.  That is the big part."  Oudolf's American landscapes such as the Highline, the Gardens of Remembrance at The Battery, and the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park all show Oudolf's remarkable range. Each of these landscapes is a powerful reference to a previous landscape. The Lurie Garden, for example, is a modern, stylized version of an American prairie that now only exists in fragments.  The High Line is an artful expression of an abandoned fallow rail track that no longer exists.  Look at some of these images of the rail track before and after the design.

Left: The fallow rail line with spontaneous vegetation; Right: Oudolf's nostalgic interpretation of that vegetation
The spontaneous vegetation that existed along the rail track had this wonderful quality to it.  Oudolf did not imitate it, but he created a designed interpretation that evoked the spirit of the wild vegetation. The loose matrix of grasses with occasional flowering bulbs was a part of the original landscape; Oudolf repeated those patterns, but in a more ornamental fashion.

A matrix of cool and warm season grasses through which perennials emerge becomes the design concept for Oudolf's plantings
Nostalgia--the ability of plantings to evoke the memory of a larger landscape--is and should be the heart of our art.  “You look at this, and it goes deeper than what you see. It reminds you of something in the genes," Oudolf remarked to an interviewer while looking at a winter landscape, "Nature, or the longing for nature. Allowing the garden to decompose meets an emotional need in people."

For other takes on memory and plants, be sure to check out other GDRT members' blog sites:

46 comments:

  1. Hmm..whatever happened to woodland? I think only about 5% of our visitors look in the woods...

    Maybe there's a kind of ambivalence?

    Explored here by Sara Maitland in 'Gossip from the Forest'
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gossip-Forest-Tangled-Forests-Fairytales/dp/184708429X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1354013295&sr=1-1

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    1. Interesting. Not sure why. James Golden's comments about this were particularly good.

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  2. Julie Moir Messervy codified this "garden of the soul" idea beautifully in her book "The Inward Garden." After reading it, I understood why the hammock hanging between two maple trees in my backyard attracted me like a magnet. I think I spent my entire adolescence cradled in three parallel branches of the maple in my backyard of long ago. Interesting ideas!

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    1. I agree. Julie Moir Messervy's book "The Inward Garden" is the best I have read that deals the concept of garden's evoking our primordial human selves. She talks about the primary elements of a garden: cosmic trees and groves, the hut, enclosures and sacred realms, on the threshold, the meadow, sacred mounds and water rites. It is an excellent resource on this topic.

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    2. I have read Julie's excellent book and it really left an impression on me. Though I thought her book stopped short of offering an explanation of why certain plants or patterns of plants really resonate with us. Her language was almost mystical--which as a reader I enjoyed--but left my intellect wanting more. I think that's why I'm more drawn to the work of environmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and geographers that offer explanations based upon our evolutionary history or hardwiring.

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  3. Right on spot, Thomas. I completely agree. Your post sent me to Wikipedia for the derivation of the word nostalgia and this is what I found: 'The word is a learned formation of a Greek compound, consisting of νόστος (nóstos), meaning "homecoming", a Homeric word, and ἄλγος (álgos), meaning "pain, ache".' This powerful need to return "home" in a metaphorical sense is, I think, the ground for a range of feelings that may be associated with being in a garden. Anne Wareham's reference to woodland, and the ambivalent feelings it evokes, is another aspect of this: a sense of unease, a frisson of fear, which may be one thing that by contrast helps drive nostalgic feelings, the desire to return to the memories associated with certain plants or landscapes, the "voyage"--like that of the archetypal Odysseus--to return "home".

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    1. Funny, I never thought to look up the word, but the derivation is quite beautiful, isn't it. I'll pretend that I knew that all along . . .

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  4. I couldn't agree more...the best, most memorable gardens (at least for me) are those I feel an emotional response to...even though I often can't put a finger on exactly what it is I'm responding to. Oudolf really is the master when it comes to this...he understands people's relationship with plants...and how they can evoke certain feelings. I admit, I am definitely an emotional gardener. For years, I didn't think I had a "style"...I just planted what I liked in a way I liked...and if it looked good to someone else too...well, that was gravy! A while ago, someone who was touring my garden laughed and remarked that I had re-created the prairies of my childhood. I suddenly realized...she was right. My palette of plants was different, to a degree, but the effect was definitely a stylized meadow reminiscent of my years on the prairies of Nebraska. I don't think I had even realized that I had been doing it...until someone else called me out! Even now, I look out the window, and seeing the bleached tassels of Calamagrostis reminds me of the similar Sorghastrum back home (which don't grow well here) and I feel a connection to where I came from...even if the place I now call home is half a continent away.

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    1. That's fascinating! I like the idea that a style chooses you rather than the gardener choosing the style. It's probably the way it happens more often than not.

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    2. Scott, your comments about the prairie have made me remember my own feelings about the woodland and my childhood experiences. For some reason, visitors aren't interested in the woods in Anne's garden. James speculated an ambivalence (due to fear?) For me, growing up, the woods ( in southeastern Pennsylvania) were a place for exploration and adventure. After school, we spent many hours building forts and playing in the woods. The woods were a wonderland. My first garden as a child was formed with woodland plants that I collected--mayapples, jack-in-the-pulpits and violets-- from the woods behind our house. I am not ambivalent about the woods. I long to retreat to the cool shade there. I am currently developing a woodland garden in my own garden. This has been a wonderful post to motivate me to use my own memories as I springboard for what I plant there and the experience I hope the visitor will have.

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  5. Oh my my, YES. In fact i agree so much that I called my company Emotive Landscapes in an attempt to make a point to this and get people thinking about what it is that Landscape gardeners, garden designers etc should be trying to do. Bringing our innate connection with the landscape into our little patch of garden.

    I worked with Piet as his student for 3 month in Holland once upon a time and we had many discussions on the above subject matter. For me his work and Japanese gardens are not too disimilar as they may first appear.

    Have a look at my most recent blog post to see something along the same lines....although slightly less eloquently described. http://www.emotivelandscapes.co.uk/horticultural-news-blog/

    I would progress what is said above and say that i think we subconsciously respond to space in a variety of ways, vegetation aside, and this should be more considered in Western design. I could carry on but shall save you all for now.

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    1. Guy,

      It's great to connect with you. I love that your firm's work focuses on this idea of an emotional connection to gardens and landscapes. You're clearly well ahead of me.

      As to your many conversations with Oudolf about design, well, I am immensely jealous. What a fabulous experience. Hope to keep up with you.

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    2. Thank you for your kind comments. Yes it was a great time and accelerated my learning immeasurably.

      I cam across your blog recently and have read almost every post top to bottom in a frothing frenzy similar to your spring time planting phase you describe so nicely. I think we share very similar thought patterns on this subject. Keep an eye on my blog i am going to try and put my thoughts to paper over the next year. Always interested in discussing them.

      This may interest you for the moment though - http://www.emotivelandscapes.co.uk/projects/planting-design-video-with-piet-oudolf/

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  6. I will admit to first thinking...'Well Thomas has a lot to say', but in reality you've hit the nail on the head. We have a nostalgic connection with the places we've been. Not just plants, not just the 'wild', but something has caused us in being there to remember it in that odd, skewed way our memory works. Our lives are memory. It's about the power of place, people and in the way you've described, plants.

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    1. I ALWAYS have too much to say. The fact that anyone suffers through this at all is a miracle to me.

      One day I will learn that you can make a point briefly as well as through endless discursive essays. As your delightful post did today. Maybe next manifesto, I mean, blog post ;)

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  7. Fascinating! Have you thought about working up a presentation on this topic..discussing these archetypal landscapes and perhaps giving suggestions on how to evoke them in one's own garden? Because I think people (me) would love it.

    I wonder how much of our emotional response to a landscape is dependent on things besides the plants, though. How much does the light, air temperature, humidity, etc. contribute to the sense of place? For example, I don't know if there is any way to recreate the feel of the highlands of Scotland anywhere but there. It's not the heather that makes that landscape, but something intangible. Green just looks different there. Maybe because the sky is so often gray and everything is shrouded in mist.

    Not sure, but you've given me a lot to think about...

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    1. Hi Mary!

      Great comments. I actually think I thought of the easy part: that there is some kind of connection between plants, places, and emotions. WHAT that exact connection is between specific plants or landscapes, heck, that's much tougher. Probably more the realm of environmental psychology than landscape architecture. I could postulate of course (I always do ;) right?), but I'd really be interested in a more scientific approach to categories emotional reactions to landscapes.

      I definitely think you're right: emotional response likely depends on a host of stimuli including the ones you mentioned. I, of course, focused only on plants (because that's what I always do). But I do think that narrowing our response to plants helps designers and gardeners focus on the kind of experiential effects they can create through evocative association.

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  8. I totally commented on your previous post when I meant to comment on this post. Whoops! Well, it still applies, because that post was outstanding too.

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    1. Many thanks, Andrew, for both comments!

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  9. I just published a short ebook about how plants can be used to interpret the Feng Shui Creative Cycle in a garden design. My interest in the topic was piqued when I saw how a Feng Shui perspective often led to similar design conclusions as a traditional Western approach, but from a more evocative, emotional point of view. Your interpretation on the communal role of memory and nostalgia seems to tilt the lens yet again in a slightly different and thought provoking way. It is always a pleasure to read what you write.

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    1. That's a really interesting link. I have to admit ignorance in knowing much about eastern gardens. I'll have to check out your book. Thanks for the reference.

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  10. So often I read your posts twice, even three times because they're THAT good. Thank you for taking us down a different road with your interpretation of this month's topic. I'm such a huge fan of Piet Oudolf's work and love how you brought to light the nostalgia he brings to his designs. Thank you!

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    1. That is a big compliment, especially from you. Thank you for that.

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  11. In Australia we have a sort of nostalgia dissonance. The natural landscapes with which we've grown up, with their muted colours, textures and sparseness are very different from the 'memories' we carry (even if we've never been there) of our ancestors' European landscapes with their rich greens, dense forests and meadows. Sadly, for many Australians it means they will never feel comfortable with their own vegetation and it creates a sort of plant apartheid where many gardeners will choose native, or exotic plants but not both.
    I also think we're hard-wired to like spaces of a certain shape and size, such as those with a 'back' that protects us but an open prospect. And try drawing a circle on open ground and then standing in the middle! Those ancients who created stone circles really hit on something fundamental and powerful there, and we still respond to it.

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    1. "Nostalgia dissonance" and "plant apartheid"--wonderfully rich thoughts. The cultural aspects of nostalgia probably do vary depending upon the country's relationship to natural vegetation. I wonder if emotional reactions to landscapes--if tested scientifically--would be more consistent or varied from country to country. The British perspective, for example, on native plantings is very different than the American one, in part perhaps because their island has such a long history of disturbance. Great comment. You have me thinking.

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  12. Light bulb moment! I am spellbound by weeping cherries and grand old weeping willows because they remind me of the Spanish moss of my Gulf Coast childhood. Thanks for the enlightenment.

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    1. Oh yes, I have a southern coastal plain childhood as well. Spanish moss adds a gothic quality to the landscape.

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  13. Gardening is a true art form and should be recognized and respected as such. Unfortunately in the larger scheme of things, not enough people realize or truly appreciate this.

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  14. Thank you, Thomas, for your thought provoking post. I think Oudolf's design of the High Line is an excellent example of nature/environment inspired design. The designer's challenge (mine, anyway) is to balance the client's desire with the environmental realities of the site.

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    1. That's always a hard balance, Jocelyn. You know, the deeper I get into this profession, I realize that the designer has to inspire, advocate, and persuade the client to do the best design. "No" is not a wall, but a starting point for the real design. When you do original, heartfelt, and strong design, the work will find you.

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  15. Wow, so much to think through here, Thomas -- your thoughtful essay and the equally thoughtful comments. I'm cogitating at the moment on Catherine's "plant apartheid," and finding it ironic that Aussie gardeners eschew their own wonderful native plants, which we Southwestern U.S. gardeners covet so much, even when they're not entirely hardy for us. Isn't it also true that European designers like Oudolf embraced American native plants long before we did? Sometimes it takes an outsider, it seems, to help us appreciate what treasures lie at our feet.

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    1. Yes, it's so true, Pam. Great points. It almost takes an outsider to help see the beauty of what surrounds us. The European "New Wave" perennial style has certainly shown us the beauty of American prairie natives. I still think the best examples of designing with U.S. native plants is in Europe. Certainly ironic.

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  16. Thomas, I so look forward to your posts and this one truly resonated. Many years ago I was taken by the idea of "ancestral memory" and it certainly explains why some landscapes evoke that connection in me. With my Swedish and Irish heritage the "sea farm" look of many New England landscapes has always given me a sense of deja vu and after having the opportunity to visit the above named countries I know why. Yes, it is more than the memories stored in our brain of this current existence. Without lapsing into metaphysics, there exists scientific evidence of these memories as scientists further explore genetics and the genome project. This so-called "sense of place" is beautifully discussed in Julie's book but the entire area could be studied as you suggest by understanding these emotional responses and their origins. Another great way to approach the "nature vs. nurture" pendulum. I humbly request you read a blog I did last winter that touches on the fringe of what we are looking for. http://elainemjohnson.com/blog/?p=602.

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  17. In all the gardens I've created, asking myself what I wanted to feel when I looked at the garden and moved through it has always been a part of the design process. I don't experience my garden in a purely objective manner as something to see and appreciate. I feel my garden. It seems odd to me that people can create a garden without considering the emotional satisfaction their garden creates. It would be like painting a room safety orange and then wondering why you have a headache.

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  18. Well said!!! Two thumbs up!!! I don’t have much word to say since I shared the same thoughts on all of these comments has to say… This is totally defines creativeness… In one word “EXTAORDINARY”.
    JeffWortham.com

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  19. Echoing others comments, Thomas your blog is one of the very best and most interesting around. Thank you and please keep going. Have any of you read 'Landscape and Memory' by Simon Schama? published in 1996. This discussion prompted me to look it out, blow the dust off and have intentions to read it again.

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  22. Visiting these garden and landscapes can evoke emotions and nostalgia for visitors.

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