Public Spaces

Ovid’s Garden Party

June 19, 2016


Note: After my talk at the opening of Ovid’s Garden at Winterbourne House in Birmingham, I was asked by several audience members if they could have a copy of my talk called “Creating Gardens with Narratives.”  I told them I’d post excerpts of it here. Photo credits: Joel Mills except where noted.


I had a very boring and uneventful childhood.

In fact, it was so boring and uneventful that it opens my book:

Reading A. A. Milne’s stories for children is like tasting my grandmother’s lemon meringue pie: the crust, tangy curd and pile of white meringue transport me to frothy, faraway days. In California summers, my large family gathered in the dappled light of my grandparents’ garden, and there were always lemon meringue pies. Those were the carefree and fleeting times, when the most important thing I had to consider was which tree to climb and what direction to wander. The pie and those books are bound in nostalgia for bygone days.

Our first gardens are the nascent portals into the natural world for children, creating first impressions as the real world opens up for us.  But they are also adult things — “cultural artefacts” you could say. Gardens and greater landscapes reflect history, science, art, politics and the psychology of the garden maker (by his or her choices of design and plants).  You can probably tell by the title of my most recent book, The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood, that I am concerned about the meaningful intersection of landscape in childhood: Christopher Robins of the 21st century need their own Hundred Acre Wood.

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley in California, the large flat and fertile geographical center of California between San Francisco  and Yosemite National Park. The Golden Gate Bridge was 110 miles to the west and the iconic granite Half Dome in Yosemite was 80 miles to the east in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

North to south, the Central Valley stretches 450 miles, is 40-60 miles wide and the sun shines 300 days per year.  The Class 1 soil of the valley is the very best there is and digging into it is like drinking a dark chocolate mocha.  It is California’s single most fruitful agricultural region and one of the most productive in the world, producing more than half the fruit, vegetables and nuts grown in the USA. The downside is that it is so big and vast that it’s hard to find a there there, but my focal point is always my parents’ garden.  When I go back to the landscape of my childhood, and in fact, I was just in California six days ago, it’s one of trees and gardens.

There were peach trees: the fuzzy, softball-sized free-stone peaches which hung heavy from the ends of the leafy branches like Christmas ornaments.  Wandering barefoot in the hot, humid dappled light of a newly irrigated orchard, I would search out the plumpest peach, climb the tree to pick it — usually wearing a summer dress my grandmother made me — and then stand barefoot in soft mud devouring the fruit while juice ran down my face, down my elbows, down the dress. And then I’d start all over.  It was the theatre of my childhood where I staged plays, musicals and dances under the canopy of trees. (But probably lacking the technique, though not the spirit, that we will see in a few minutes from the Avid for Ovid dancers recreating ancient pantomime.)


There were walnut trees.  Those cloaked and curious nuts grew in the dense canopy of shaded, atmospheric orchards, in hard, thoughtful shells. I’ve cracked thousands of them; it is a magical moment each time I see a new grooved, nut resembling the hemispheres of the human brain. In fact, there is an unspoken rule from members of my California friends and family arriving in England: do not expect me to pick you up from the airport unless you bring at least 20 pounds of those golden oily crunchy nuts with you.

And then there were cherry trees, whose fruit tasted like small, ruby fireworks in my mouth — if I could get to them before the blue scrub jays.  When I heard the buzzing of a crop duster, an airplane converted to apply fertilizers or pesticides to crops, I’d run out of the house like it was on fire. I’d climb to the top of a cherry tree to madly wave, practically shaking the cherries off the tree, until the pilot waved back before dipping low over the tree tops.

There were many other trees — oranges, limes, almonds, apricots, persimmons and occasionally oaks in gardens, or even palm trees as in my mother’s garden — but because those were the most sensual trees to me, with the greatest sense of place attached to them, they were the most memorable.

I don’t have a single memory of a video game.

Time then was measured by crop yields, by new orchards planted, by water levels rising and falling in reservoirs in wet and then dry years.  It was measured by my father’s garden — where my mud pies dried in the California sun and where I watched my father, a high school teacher of agriculture, tend tall fragrant towers of tomatoes, rows  of corn, okra, eggplant and zucchini.  The narrative of that garden was not then “literary” to me (though perhaps it is becoming so now that I am writing about it, by crafting sentences around memories and making meaning out of it). Rather, that garden was my cradle, my inspiration, my science lab. It had great sense of place.


But I grew out of the cradle and into the orchards: those neat lined ordered rows of trees.

In time as well, I grew out of those peach, walnut and cherry orchards where juicy fruit ran down my elbows, I staged plays and waved to pilots in crop dusters. But they have never left my mind. In fact, if I design a garden for you, I may create a grid of trees and you may say ‘Oh, what a modern garden!’ and I will think, ‘Well, I’m just recreating an orchard.’  I grew out of the orchard, but not before asking seemingly simple questions:  as the fruit and nut trees are not native but leafy immigrants to the Central Valley, where did the trees come from?  Where did they originate?  And later, I wondered about the Mexican immigrants who arrived from the south like swifts and swallows we see here in England to pick ton after ton of peaches and harvest walnuts and almonds. What, also, was the story of the Portuguese, Dutch, Swiss and Austrian corn, cotton and rice farmers and the dairymen whose parents living with them may not have spoken English?

As a teenager, I wanted to know the stories of the plants and people who shaped this valley. I would drive to Woodward Reservoir with a blanket and homework and disappear into wild grassy areas to read.  (In fact, whenever I think of Great Expectations, I think of dry golden grass where I read the book far more than the book’s Victorian London setting.)

When I went to University and then graduate school, I suppose it’s not be surprising that I developed an interest in the intersection between landscapes and literature, between nature writing and environmental history, between people and places.  Of course, I  read academic books and found I was pretty good at writing academic papers. However, my heart and head were more interested in literary journalism, or creative nonfiction — that is, using fictional devices to make nonfiction come alive (with more emphasis on creating a setting, enhanced dialogue, a stronger emphasis on the voice and background of the writer in the narrative).  I went on to teach American Literature of Nature and Place, Critical Thinking and Environmental Issues for many years.


As a 20 year old, I remember reading an essay by one of American’s most famous naturalists, John Muir, about his walk from San Francisco to Yosemite.  From this particular essay, I asked myself,  ‘At what point does a landscape or a place (whatever the size — from a garden to a valley to a state to a country) become more than just a place and a literary landscape?’  From Muir, I caught my first glimpses of the landscape that existed before.  Only 110 years earlier, the Central Valley was a completely different landscape. Here’s an excerpt from what he wrote:

“Florida is indeed a ‘land of flowers,’ but for every flower creature that dwells in its most delightsome places more than a hundred are living here [San Joaquin Valley]. Here, here is Florida! Here they are not sprinkled apart with grass between as on our prairies, but grasses are sprinkled among the flowers; not as in Cuba, flowers piled upon flowers, heaped and gathered into deep, glowing masses, but side by side, flower to flower, petal to petal, touching but not entwined, branches weaving past and past each other, yet free and separate – one smooth garment, mosses next the ground, grasses above, petaled flowers between.”

Muir’s lens on the landscape reveals a chapter of the story I would never of course experience, the era before industrial farming, before freeways and before oil wells (and before that, the settlements of Native American tribes up and down the valley).  His writing was a travelogue and it invites us to learn about the place that once existed, to experience it years later, today even… just as today we are reaching back into antiquity with this living landscape, Ovid’s Garden.

So this brings up an important question: is the San Joaquin Valley a “literary landscape” because Muir wrote about it?  Or is a literary landscape a subjective place or experience? But it also begs the question:  given the popularity of nature writing, travel writing and memoirs with strong settings, what landscapes aren’t literary these days? There’s Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. There’s Alexander von Humboldt’s South America. There’s all of England which is hugely rich in the tradition of literature landscapes. Think Shakespeare, Chaucer, the Bronte Sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and many more …

Adding a literary dimension to the physical landscape imbues it with additional “sense of place.” What does that mean?  To me, it’s that invisible layer of memories, history and emotions covering the real landscape we see in front of us. It’s like unseen but powerful strata.  And it’s different for each of us.  It’s important BOTH in writing as well as designing. We are adding a new layer to our sense of Ovid’s work today, and to the sense of place he evoked in his writing.  As you have been listening, you can now feel that I have a very strong sense of place in the San Joaquin Valley. I hope some of you have imagined those important first landscapes of your childhood, the places of your childhood between about 4 and 8 years old.

The Washington Post called my book a “honey pot of nostalgia,” and that may be true, but I think one of the reasons my book became a New York Times Bestseller is because I tapped into the zeitgeist of parents concerned their children could be the first generation to spend more time in digital landscapes rather than real ones. It’s one way I make these classic children’s stories by AA Milne even more relevant.  During my readings both here and the United States, people are compelled to reflect on the that the Christopher Robins of the 21st century need their own Hundred Acre Wood, be it a weedy, neglected city lot; a wild area of a playground; or a real wooded area where they can go and … create their own narrative of childhood and develop a sense of place.

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Photo: Kathryn Aalto

Literature and stories and narratives transport us to larger landscapes, smaller regions  and gardens and here behind us, back to Classical times and to modern times.

When Miriam asked me to design this literary garden — of course, I said yes.  I was interested in helping her take the landscapes Ovid describes in his works and recreating them for us, today, to experience as living landscapes and links to the past in the same way that Muir’s writing about my San Joaquin Valley enriches my experience of that place.  Landscapes with narratives — be they reaching into the past or creating a new voice — ground us in place while transporting us back in time. They become more than space but cultural artefacts and richer in meaning through a narrative.

Walking through this very garden today not only deepens our understanding of the sensual and meaningful living landscape in which Ovid wrote his stories but these grand gardens of the past were designed to impart narrative, as Miriam said. It is experiential. I very much like that that it is a place here regardless of one’s academic background. Ovid’s Garden is accessible and is like a living museum without glass cabinets, a garden where people, place and history intersect in a rather beautiful way, wouldn’t you agree?

My topic is “Creating Gardens with Narrative.”  I started by talking about greater landscapes but the same approaches to writing about landscape can be applied to designing landscapes. Where do we begin?

It begins first by looking outward and then looking inward.

By looking outward, we are reading the physical landscape like a text. We need to elicit information: what is the soil type? how much sun does the garden get and where are the shady spots? What about wind? What are the site lines and views (i.e., borrowed landscapes or what is outside the garden that we want to frame within our design)? And practical questions such as, what are the water sources?  We also need to consider noise (do we want to block it out), utilities and existing architecture. We want gardens to exist in harmony as an outside room of the existing house and be supported by the land.  In other words, the landscape is telling you the kind of voice it needs, the way it wants to be written. If it’s saying there’s a memoir to be written, try not to impose an academic treatise. Listen to the narrative the land can support.

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Photo: Kathryn Aalto

To create a garden with a narrative, we need to look inward and revisit the concept of “sense of place.”  Larger landscapes like my San Joaquin Valley are imbued with a strong sense of place through memories, experiences, emotions, history.

Design-wise, the best gardens have the clearest narrative. I remember one of my lecturers at the London College of Garden Design used to say, look at our drawings and concepts and ask, “So. What’s the big idea?” In other words, “What is the controlling narrative?”  Whenever I go back to the United States and take morning runs through neighbourhoods, I am often confused by American gardens as they can often lack a strong narrative — aside from grass. We do like our “democratic” lawns.

The core question is, for our own private gardens, what of our own narrative do we want to bring to a garden? It will likely come out in some way, so might as well be reflective.  Remember I mentioned gardens as cultural artefacts? American gardens often start with a porch extending from the house and an intermediary space is created for interacting with passersby and with the garden whereas English reserve, combined with cooler weather of course, forces a retreat of society to the back of the house and out of view.

Once we understand what the site can support, we can ask what kind of design we want, whether we want an architectural garden sculpted onto the site with cooling, subtle evergreens and created a quiet psychological space like an embrace. Or do we want structured garden interspersed with plants, like we see here.  Or are we more interested in the plants themselves, which could have great meaning to us or just catch our fancy. What plants are most evocative to us? Have the greatest memories? Whatever garden you create, ask yourself, what story do you have to bring to the landscape and what story can the landscape support and what story do the plants in the landscape tell?  In another link with writing, if a garden’s narrative can’t be summed up in like an elevator pitch — that is, the time it takes for a writer to describe an idea agent in a lift — then perhaps the narrative needs to be tightened or revised.

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Photo: Kathryn Aalto

A. A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood is often a child’s first literary landscape, a safe foray into a new world of tender adventures. Milne and E. H. Shepard, his illustrator, were like the Lennon and McCartney of children’s literature. In seemingly simple words and drawings, they captured the soul and essence of childhood. And The Hundred Acre Wood is a literary landscape we can visit today. It is called Ashdown Forest and is located about an hour south of London. You can find the Enchanted Place, Pooh’s Thoughtful Spot, the North Pole, and play Poohsticks on the real Poohsticks Bridge. It’s a living landscape and I write about it here when I write about the cluster of trees known as The Enchanted Place. It is where a boy says goodbye to his bear (or his childhood):

These trees, both in real life and in Shepard’s drawings, bring us happiness on many levels. Christopher Robin and Pooh step into the cluster as light streams in from the east or the west. The sky glows. Bark glistens. The grass is newly green. It is childhood, the spring of our lives. The drawings are so emotive, so tender and so iconic that it may be hard to separate them from the real place. But, why bother? Why separate memory from what we see? The fusion of fiction and nonfiction, the real and the fantasy worlds, the links between literature and landscape, are so joyful. And it is there in Ashdown Forest where we perceive the Enchanted Place through the prism of many: through Milne, Shepard, the fictional Christopher Robin, the real Christopher Robin, our children, our own childhood memories and our adult experiences.”

Like Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood, here in Ovid’s Garden, a garden evoking Classical Italy, we are also celebrating the fusion of landscape and literature, of art and science.  You can enjoy garden’s narrative on any level you choose: enjoy the roses for their fragrance and beauty or step into the world of literature and art and dance right here.






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