If I asked you what you wanted, would you be able to answer? It’s a powerful thing, wanting. Gardens, both in myth and in reality, are all about longing. The things that address our longings, whether we have acknowledged them or not, are the things that make the garden successful. The opposite, of course, is also true; the things that fail to hit the mark or, worse, hit raw nerves need to be acknowledged up front. A garden that misses your true desire, no matter how beautiful, will never be right for you.
Recently I asked a student who was having trouble with a particular section of her design whether she liked the tree she was trying to design around. She said yes, but actually shook her head no as she was saying it! I see this a lot; it seems that if we think we are supposed to like something, we tell ourselves we like it despite our gut reactions. You can put all the plant material you want around something you hate, but there’s no way to disguise it. If you don’t like that particular thing, you don’t like it, period, and for purposes of design it really doesn’t matter why. It only matters that you say, I don’t want that, because the internal no cannot be overcome.
The ‘don’t want’ list is the easy part; the ‘want’ list is much more ephemeral. Items on this list are composed of memory and dream, of past and future, and they are often oddly conflated. I wear a ring that reminds me of my grandmother despite the fact that it looks absolutely nothing like the ring she wore. They’re both aquamarines, and that’s about it. Mine is pale, simple, set in white gold; hers was the darkest aqua I’ve ever seen wrapped in an elaborate, yellow gold setting. So why are they the same in my head? It took a few years to figure it out, but it goes back to the tin of peppermint candies she kept on her kitchen table, in which was a mix of the ordinary red-striped ones that I didn’t much like and some others that I really, really did. Whenever I visited I’d dig through the tin to find them, and they were always there, thin, oblong, in clear cellophane wrappers. Can you guess their color?
So I wear an aquamarine that looks like a Crystal Mint, and want is satisfied. I don’t just have Grandma’s ring I have Grandma, and Grandma’s kitchen, and the memory of cinnamon toast and soft-boiled eggs in pretty, porcelain egg cups. You couldn’t have just cereal for breakfast in Grandma’s house; you’d be dead by lunch without an egg. I have a fair recollection of the perfume she wore, with hints of lily-of-the-valley, and a vivid sense of the lilacs to the left of the kitchen door. I suspect it’s my desire to be close to her that drives my gardening; I can nurture and tend the same way I was nurtured and tended.
I can also be productive, which is terribly important to me as a Yankee, and my product is beautiful, which is terribly important to me as an artist. What do I want? To feel connected. No great surprise that I emphasize whole-property design. I want everything on the property to have a cohesive, visual connection, so that everyone who enters the property has that same emotional experience.
So how do you go about the task of defining want in terms of the landscape? If, like me, you’re living in an area that appeals to you geographically, all you need do is identify the qualities of the colors and shapes and scents in the things that surround you every day. When I moved back to Maine years ago, I realized how very much I’d missed the salt in the air; you can smell it even a mile inland. I missed the birch, how they gleam in the moonlight, how they bend, laden with snow, how they rise in Spring when the weight of Winter is passed. I missed the pine — the graceful white and the rugged, gnarled pitch — but I also missed the rugosa and the bayberry, and the beach grass along the dunes.
Quick, then, like a Rorschach, what do your instincts tell you that means in terms of landscaping for me? How does that inkblot of ephemeral want translate to a statement of practical, plantable want, a want that I can take to the nursery and say, Give me these, please. Here’s my analysis: I want graceful materials that are also rugged and resilient, and I want materials with strong, clean scents that perfume the air and linger in my head, on my clothes, on my skin. Why does the scent need to cling? Perhaps it’s as simple as being wrapped in something I love, perhaps it’s an inability to let go, perhaps it’s like wearing a lover’s shirt or sleeping on his side of the bed when he’s gone. I don’t know why; I just know that’s what I want.
Oh, and I want things that rustle when the wind comes up, or shifts as it did just now. I’m writing this out on the deck at a friend’s house, about half a mile from shore, and the wind has turned. It’s coming off the water now, picking up salted energy. If I walk down I know the waves will be up and I’ll hear another sound I adore, and I’ll see the crest, and I’ll watch the water pour over the sand and pull away, pour over and pull away, pour over and pull away.
Those rhythms, which are such an integral part of both my internal and external landscapes, have a design quality to them. I can use the same motion that I see in the curve of the wave, the line of the shore, the angle of the rock against which the water beats. They have a design quantity, too, in the number of steps I take to move from this point to that, in the number of things I move past, left and right, as I go along. There is a quantity of color, and a quantifiable effect of that color, and of scent, and of sound.
The garden of desire is built first from language. What do you want?