Walking Through the Trees, part I, by Kenneth Radu
27 February 2013

Xstrata Treetop Walkway, Kew Gardens

I was walking through a canopy of trees in Kew Gardens on a windy day when the thought struck me, not strongly enough to knock me over, but sufficient to make me pause. They often say, that indefatigable and officious “they,” that to achieve greatness, aside from the arrangement and selection of plants, a garden requires walls, water, and stone in any variation thereof. Wind blasting against one’s person on a seeming precipice arouses anxiety, but the oddity of strolling through treetops, seeing the world from a bird’s eye view among the branches offered compensation. Despite the broken elevator the day I visited and the recourse to the many stairs, it’s an oddity one is thankful for.

Well-guarded by rails and not precariously perched, I was nonetheless high off the ground on the Xstrata Treetop Walkway. An engineering tour de force opened in May, 2008, balancing the mechanical with the organic, incorporating the patterns of the Fibonacci sequence found in nature, the structure stands 18 metres (about 60 feet) above ground and extends its circuitous way 200 metres through lime and oak trees. Observation points encourage one to stop and admire the Palm House, view the Arboretum below designed by Capability Brown, and survey a royal garden that now belongs to the public.

In Kew, aside from an unpretentious palace and handsome orangery, there are walls, stones and water to satisfy our ubiquitous “they,” but Kew is more a park than a garden. A great park, a recreational park of gardens, a horticultural learning and research centre, a venue of spectacles, to be sure, but it’s too busy a place for anyone seeking uninterrupted solitude. It’s difficult to wander lonely as a cloud, should one be inclined, when babies in prams pushed by parents, gaggles of uniformed teens, and lovers awkwardly hanging on to each other block one’s way and break apart reveries. This is not an elitist lament, merely an observation about the welcome democratization of previously private terrain. I feel the same in the extensive gardens of Versailles, that exercise in order, patterns, rigorous pruning, and rules of aristocratic decorum. Stunning to behold, albeit too geometric and inert for my taste, and visited by legions of post-revolutionary tourists who help pay for the upkeep.

Ruskin's Terrace Garden, Cumbria

In that respect, traipsing along the pathways of John Ruskin’s mountain gardens on his Cumbrian estate satisfied. It’s not park land. There are no recreational playgrounds, no son et lumière spectacles, although an art school conducts classes on the premises. The students are discreet and out of sight. In any case, I was doing my traipsing on a blustery, wet morning, not ideal for setting up easels. It was in fact a decidedly cool and wet April, and one wonders what Robert Browning meant by his famous verse: “Oh to be in England / Now that April’s here.” I remember strolling about Wordsworth’s garden at his Rydal Mount home during a downpour against which my umbrella was no defence. Gardens are really seen at their best on cloudy days, respite from the bleaching effects of the sun, and perhaps there is something romantic about getting drenched in a field of daffodils.

Ruskin's Slate Garden

Ruskin argues among his voluminous writings that we should work with what we find in our landscape and not against it, and his mountainside paths and plantings confirm his opinion. That being said, he was not above imposing a literary allegory on nature. He built a peculiar garden, the so-called Zig-Zaggy, based upon Dante’s Purgatorio and rising on the slope to the Paradiso. Various sins are symbolically planted. Lust, for example, is represented by slate (there is stone for you), or is it envy? One enters through a willow gate. As enough hell flourishes elsewhere on earth, however, I prefer to keep it out of my garden.

Walls may consist of anything from old brick to yew hedges, the former very much in evidence in Vita Sackville West’s somewhat formal gardens at Sissinghurst, the latter taken to topiary excellence in Christopher Lloyd’s Yew garden at Great Dixter, which also has walls and water. Water can be present in a still pond or a man-made lake, a babbling brook or a gushing fountain. Stone paths, statuary, boulders, smaller rocks, pebbles, slate: one needs the inorganic adroitly situated in a garden. It’s almost an aesthetic imperative. Water gardens, of course, are a thing unto themselves with their own dynamic, just as the exclusive dependence upon boulders, pebbles and sand create the silence and textures of Zen gardens.

Not having visited Japan, I have occasionally passed a quasi-meditative hour or less sitting on a bench outside the glass-enclosed Zen garden in the tea house of the Japanese garden in Montreal’s Jardin Botanique. One does not amble about a Zen garden, so much as observe and contemplate the subtle patterns raked in sand and stones. I confess that after a while of staring at the still life, I yearned for some movement. Even a fly on the glass, to borrow from Emily Dickinson’s memorable poem, would have sufficed, but that is a confession of my meditative deficiencies.

To be sure, outside the tea house a fine example of classic Japanese gardening delights the eye with its preponderance of symbolic plantings, male and female boulders, and bridges over ponds speckled with koi. Counting the fish, I concluded that plant-free gardens work best in small places. An extensive acreage of stones, however spiritually or philosophically raked, would perhaps be more bleak than beautiful, the expansive minimalism leading to a sense of desolation or the aridity of the moon. 

© Kenneth Radu, 2013

Author Kenneth Radu among Camellias, Llanhydrock

Kenneth Radu is the author of several books (fiction, poetry, and a memoir), the most recent being a volume of short stories, Sex in Russia (DC Books). A new collection entitled Earthbound is also forthcoming from DC. He is currently working on a novel manuscript, other stories, and now and then enjoys writing something else. He lives near Montreal.

Photos: Courtesy Kenneth Radu


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