Spring 2003

The Figure in the Landscape


For my dissertation on 18th-century culture, I read J.D. Hunt’s The Figure in the Landscape.

One passage has stayed with me: “The literary history of the eighteenth century could partly be written in terms … identified with the  landscape garden.”

Gardens, to the Neoclassical mind, were places of retreat, yes, but also associated with liberty and the development of the human psyche. “Wow,” I thought, “I can certainly use this to analyze ‘The Deserted Village’ and ‘Ode on Solitude.’”

Hence, another dissertation chapter was completed on “intimate spaces,” and my defense date got closer. Such was my use of “garden” theory.

Seven years later I purchased a house in east Wichita, graduate-school thinking nowhere in sight as I emphasized the interior of my house.

I had my central heating and air, ceiling fans, a dry basement and rooms for books; I had my low-cost mortgage; I had my color TV. I was a conventional 20th-century urban professional. If I never met my neighbors, blame the architects who attached garages to houses and the engineers who created the remote garage-door opener.

Then came my first spring, when I noticed that some previous resident had planted irises and hostas in the small plots around the house.

Moreover, the vacant house next door was host to sweetpea creepers and a few scraggly lilies. Sun permeated the back yard and southern garden plot six to seven hours each day. Alexander Pope, I recalled, advises one to always “consult the genius of the place in all.”

As I surveyed the extension of my yard in Lockean fashion, it went from a near “tabula rasa” to an opportunity for my imagination. I knew that I was becoming the figure in my own suburban landscape. Too much potential called to me. Graduate readings were no longer academic but psychological as well.

In one of his Spectator essays, Joseph Addison observes that most gardens are “narrowly” plotted so that “the imagination runs them over, and requires something else to gratifie [sic] her.”

So what could I do with that 12-by-12 patch of yard that was forever in the shade of my neighbor’s garage — besides mow it? How about a dozen hostas? Two dozen? Okay, three dozen, as if the genies of the hosta realm resided there.

Likewise, the wiry fence between houses never kept dog or child from entering from next door, so why not make it inviting? After all, the English liked to hide their fences — called hahas — at the base of hills so that their property lines disappeared and their lands “extended” beyond their vision.

I cannot bury this fence, but I can subdue it with climbing roses, sweetpea (and I knew where I could find that!) and lilies. Indeed, to look at the yard was to imagine its potential the way the wealthy gentry of the 1760s could see the opportunities of a circuit-walk garden in almost any varied landscape. And every neighbor came with cuttings when I emerged as a gardener.

However, landscapes are not subdued as easily in life as in essays.

When I planted tulip bulbs one fall, my neighbor’s Westie waited for me to move to other parts of the yard before dropping every planted bulb at my feet, waiting in wriggly excitement for my praise.

Squirrels conspired to plant acorns and walnuts in my ground that I had softened to plant perennials, so that I had to extract the young nut trees without damaging the root structures that I had carefully laid down. The sprig of mint that I situated by the back deck attacked everything nearby with its underground offensive.

Was this part of the “pastoral vision” of the 18th century? Were there West Highland terriers in Kew gardens? Pope and Oliver Goldsmith never mentioned Tonka trucks in the Dianthus or skateboards among the delphiniums, but nothing happened that wasn’t resolved with bribes from the vegetable garden and old athletic equipment donated to young hands.

Soon 20 roses signified the “light side of [my] psyche” and gaillardia, purple coneflowers and toad lilies testified to my sense of “longevity.” And since Henry Vaughan had impressed upon me that “flowing water” serves as “a metaphor for human life,” I put in a small pond and fountain, surrounded it with shrubs and became the hermit of my own creation because “no landscape garden was complete without its hermit” — the opening line of The Figure in the Landscape.

With the addition of the hammock and a fruit cocktail tree, I have reached tenure in my own personal cultural  psychology, years after my academic training ended.

I now amuse myself with visions of digging up the entire back yard and putting in a circuit walk complete with statues of Vaughan, Goldsmith and Pope. I am now limited only to my imagination, as Neoclassical as it is Modern.