Saturday morning, Row and I headed off to the county of Oxfordshire, north of Surrey. I was a bit nervous, because we were headed to visit a place that has profoundly affected my life trajectory. In 2012, I was a little baby horticulture student who was studying abroad in England for 6 weeks. I had fallen so in love with horticulture, and I was planning on abandoning the landscape architecture plan and just continuing in horticulture. But one rainy afternoon, our van pulled onto the gravel road that led to a garden I had never heard of before. It's called Rousham, home to the Dormer family and is one of the first English Landscape Movement gardens. A rough Yorkshireman named William Kent would take the gardens of the Enlightenment period and turn them on their head by welcoming the pastoral landscape beyond into the garden. Hardly anyone has heard of Rousham. No dogs or children are allowed. It has no tea room or gift shop. All it has is a ticket machine, and for 5 pounds you can have one of the greatest gardens in the world virtually all to yourself. Don't tell anyone, because I rather like it that way.
The garden is simple, consisting only of the color green. Different species of trees are used so that light filters through the canopy in different densities. Thick mats of laurel float under the upper story, their glossy leaves reflecting the different light coming in from above. Paths disappear around corners, tempting you to discover what lays beyond. Areas of heavy shade press you in tight and release you into open glades of grass and still ponds. There is no right path to take, because with each choice of direction you will discover something new, unexpected, and beautiful in its elegant simplicity. At one point, a thin rill of water catches your eye and then disappears around a corner. The rushing water pulls you into a small opening in the canopy where an octagonal pool of water appears, completely still except for the small trickle of water pouring in from the rill. Row and I stood out of the rain under the cover of a grotto behind the pool and just stared silently as the drops hit the water and the ferns rocked up and down as droplets landed on their leaves. It was a moment so simple, yet so compelling.
In grad school I pinned a picture of my favorite view from Rousham at eye level on my studio wall above my desk. During late nights or early mornings as I drank another expresso or heated up another frozen dinner, I would look up and remember why I was doing landscape architecture. I did landscape architecture because of that rainy afternoon when I first stepped through the gates of Rousham 4 years ago. Kent took simple and ordinary things and made magical moments. Trees, laurel, light, water, curving paths... even the cows grazing in the landscape beyond. It all is choreographed into a graceful symphony, with its interludes and climaxes and sweet melody. It is dynamic, layered, and pure, nearly 260 years later.
Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of September 11th. I spent nearly 2 hours just watching videos that different news stations had compiled from that day, and I couldn't stop myself from crying. I don't want to forget the horror. I also don't want to forget the incredible heroes who came in the form of ordinary people. I was only 10 when the planes crashed into the twin towers, too young to understand the gravity of that day, but fully aware that the safe bubble of the world I had in my head was not quite reality. For years I found different ways of escaping the reality of the world. Gardens have the potential of being that for me. They could be the Versailles that I build for myself, to control the world around me, to push back the wild of the world. But days like September 11, 2001 show me that I can't control this world. One day my Versailles will crumble.
But the beauty I see at Rousham is one which points beyond this world into another. This kind of beauty takes that bubble I have placed around me out of fear and peels it off so that I can see the hands of the ultimate Creator. Rousham takes ordinary trees and arranges them to draw attention to the purity of light. It takes water and channels it into a mysterious path to a hidden point of serenity. It takes the grand statues of the Renaissance and tucks them back into the forest, dwarfing them among the creation. Fighting for beauty in this harsh world isn't a way of running away from reality, it is a way of looking forward to the day when our current hope will be made true, when all that is wrong will be made right, and we will be whole and beautiful again.
So maybe designing gardens seems like a meager offering in a world with September 11ths and pain and sadness. But if a garden can serve as a portal into the beauty of our Creator, then I believe it is a task well worth the pursuit.