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Gardening In The Fourth Dimension

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In addition to email sent to me from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I get regular emails from NASA with the latest round of Hubble photos. The pictures are always extraordinary, and the language used to describe their content is fascinating.

Somewhere in that huge cache of left-brained scientists there’s a poet or two, and always a phrase that catches my mind and lingers, wandering between the hemispheres. This is the one that captivated me a few months ago: “Special relativity overthrows Newtonian notions of absolute space and time by stating that distance and time depend on the observer, and that time and space are perceived differently, depending on the observer.”

So what on Earth would make someone think of garden design when reading about theoretical physics? Look at the idea again, from the observer’s standpoint: where I am viewing, and when I am viewing, dictate what I am viewing. Most designs have the where and the what, but lack the when. Ignoring the element of time deprives the observer of the complete view that designing for the fourth dimension provides.

So what kind of time are we talking about? Time of day, of course, and time of year, because these control both the amount and the quality of available light. It is also time in terms of age. As I wander through Deering Oaks Park here in Portland, the view in 2007 is dramatically different than I would have seen a century ago. A century from now, it will be different still. The trees will change, the skyline will change, and the ethos of the people will change. What changes ethos? Culture. What changes culture? Time.

Does the fact that I grew up in a culture where women voted, and went out to work and burned bras and marched in protest affect the way I see the landscape? Of course. I am a product of my time, and a product of my age. How I view what I see is a result of both. There’s a perfect example of this at the far edge of the same park, in the form of a very Victorian, very elaborate rose garden. I don’t know how I would perceive this space if it weren’t disconnected from the Park by a thoroughfare, and I don’t know how I might have perceived this space had I viewed it when it was young or I was younger, but I see it now as an island of physical and cognitive dissonance. The site hasn’t changed, but because I have, because the traffic, the city, and the culture has, this particular garden is out of sync with time itself.

So why are there gardens for which time has stopped, gardens in which you are transported to another era with such ease you barely notice the shift, gardens through which you walk as if gowned, cloaked in the very air of the period? Again, the answer is time and space. When the physical space of the garden is large enough, when the passage through requires that we submit ourselves for a substantial piece of time, our world and our time falls away. Without the distance such time and space affords, we remain connected to the present circumstance and never have the chance to leave ourselves behind.

Although the rest of the Park is seldom without sound and I am not so removed from the world that I don’t notice traffic moving on all sides, the fifteen-minute walk one end to the other is all I need to experience that shift. I focus on the trees, magnificently old, and the way the light floats through the leaves in Summer or falls to the still ground in Winter. There is enough time and enough space for me to see them as they were. I don’t know how many minutes or how many steps set the threshold for enough, but the poor little rose garden has neither. It has been severed from its past and cast adrift in our present. Without the anchor of time, it is mere relic.

There is a sadness to relics, a melancholy born of death. We marvel at the civilization that created the object, but even as we admire we know we are looking into a culture that time has swept away. We can uncover the bones, reassemble the shards, study the architecture, and duplicate the jewels, but we cannot bring the culture back to life. A garden, though, is supposed to be alive, and so the pain of witnessing its living death is all the more acute. If we cannot, for want of space, be pulled back to the time of the garden’s origin, we must move the garden forward in time.

There are two components to this understanding of time and space: that of keeping the garden grounded in the esoteric sense, and that of grounding in the very real sense. To me, taking care to provide sufficient physical space is easy, and yet it’s the very thing that seems to confound people. You’ll have no confusion, though, if you keep this image in mind: when you buy most plants, they’re two-year-old toddlers. Just as the toddler human will outgrow his crib seemingly overnight, the toddler plant will outgrow its earthen equivalent. We can replace the crib with a full-sized bed to accommodate the child’s growth, but if we have not provided the plant with ample space it has nowhere to go. Imagine a gangly teenager in a trundle bed and you get the idea.

When we tuck a shrub or a tree into a spot that we know is too small for the mature size, we intend for all the world to move it in a few years when it’s bigger, but those years roll by in a heartbeat. It still looks okay where it is, so we leave it for a couple more. The next time we look, it’s too big to move without heavy equipment, and so there it stays. We hack away at offending branches and learn to ignore the confused tangle where it conflicts with some other shrub or tree and the dead spots where it’s given up trying to grow altogether.

Real stewardship of our land requires that we plant only those things we can truly provide for in terms of space, and over time. The joy of watching the plant flourish is every bit as satisfying as the immediate gratification of an impulsive buy at the nursery – and longer lived. When I visit properties I designed a decade ago and see in reality landscapes that existed only in my head, I am almost ridiculously happy. Fat, sturdy tree trunks that support big, healthy branches, shrubs that have doubled, perennials that have quadrupled in size – now that’s fun. It’s long-range fun, I grant you, but fun nonetheless.

I wonder what I will see when I look a decade from now, and what others will observe in the decades after that. I wonder how they will feel as they watch the light float through the leaves of a tree I planted, or smell a magnolia, or fill a bowl with peonies. Landscapes are spaces we leave for the times that follow.

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About Lindsay Knapp