An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
of March 16, 2003
Written in the woods just south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

    DIETER'S GARDEN

The notion that the Woodsias had looked "so perfectly at home where they are" took me back to my early traveling days, to a delicious summer morning in Vienna, Austria in the 1970s, when I was visiting my friend Dieter. We were in the vast gardens of the old Summer Palace of Schönbrunn, where I had never seen so many roses, row after row of them, of perfectly trimmed hedges, and of acres of geometrically arranged curlicue-bedded tulips and irises and other bright blossoms. The Schönbrunn garden Web site with pictures giving an idea of what I saw is at www.federal-gardens.at/frames/schoenbrunn_f.htm

"I never dreamed a place could be so pretty," I gushed to Dieter.

Dieter, one of the most dignified and refined individuals I've ever met, glanced at me with pity in his eyes. Art history was a passion with him, and to him Schönbrunn's gardens fell within that domain.

"You can think about it in evolutionary terms," he said, more or less. "Maria Teresa laid out the garden's plans in the early 1700s. Just a few years before that, there'd been a real question as to whether Vienna could survive the starvation brought on by a siege mounted by the Turks. In a real way, then, glittery, ostentatious Schönbrunn with its regimented flower beds and eternally clipped hedges can be seen as a reaction to those earlier times, a statement confirming Western man's newly acquired dominance over his environment."

"These gardens are bright and totally controlled like an infant's playroom," Dieter continued. "There's an obsession here with bright color, ignoring more complex possibilities such as the mingling of leaf textures or the interplay of form and shadows. There's a single-minded fixation on simple geometric precision while ignoring harmony with the landscape, for example, and local folk traditions. This garden is an effort by Maria Teresa and the people of her time to convince themselves that with militarism and science they could overcome what they regarded as the chaos of nature. When I walk in these gardens, yes, the bright colors are nice the way children's bright balloons are nice, but, on a higher level, I am oppressed by the garden design's total lack of mature spontaneity, and by its insensitivity to its natural and cultural context. It's almost as bad as your mowed lawns in America where esthetics among the masses also remains at an immature stage of development... "

The shock of having such a fully formed thought pregnant with so many alien assumptions laid before me left me speechless. Instantly I recognized veins of truth in his argument. All I could do was to sniff a rose and grin.

In later years I learned how plantings could be arranged so that, for instance, gatherings of leaves complemented certain blossoms. There have even been times in this life when I also felt oppressed by naked, straight lines of tulips marching across mowed American lawns, no matter how bright the tulips' reds and yellows were.

But, now in my graybeard days, somehow I feel as if I've wandered through and then out of the whole discussion, and when I see a tulip wherever it is I just feel like dropping to my knees and poking my nose into its brightness.

Still, I'd like to visit Dieter again, to see how his ideas have evolved. I'm sure that, as always, his insights will have developed beyond mine. I would like to broach with him this idea:

From what I've seen, the most sophisticated gardens are those aspiring to look natural. Therefore, might not the final stage of esthetic development be when one loves best what is indeed natural -- the wild forest, the marsh, the meadow?

I would like to ask Dieter if any garden he can imagine could equal the loveliness of the embankment I visited this week, where the native Blunt-lobed Woodsias unfurled so graciously among their homey little moss and liverwort companions. Facebook Icon.