Edenic Landscapes I

A short history of sparse landscapes.

Genesis gives us remarkably few details about the garden of Eden: two naked people, a serpent, two notable trees. So what do you imagine when you hear the word garden?

You may think Beyoncé is lush, but last year’s gardens in Quick, B.C. define the word. With a rain forest weather pattern this summer things grew and grew. A few hard rains and some wind in August meant that things began to fall, tangle and intertwine. I watched a swather try to get through the snarl of lodged timothy, orchard grass, red clover, alsike and alfalfa last week. What a tangle that was! I’d like to say something in favour of tangles and overly-lush gardens.

First, why are we inclined to dislike tangled, rank landscapes? When Great Britain was being colonized and “civilized” the land was covered, some historians say, with an almost impenetrable oak forest. Native Britons had cleared land, of course, and there were natural moors, but it was the Romans who built their marvelous roads to connect various camps.

Skip some 800 years and the Norman French conquered the land – by then settled by Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Danes as well – and built castles; following feudal tradition, they claimed forests as the exclusive domain of the nobility. Wildlife was the property of the nobility too, with severe penalties for poaching. Nobles loved hunting for boars and various deer species, on horseback except for the fatal spear thrust, and one cannot have tangles when milord is racing through the forest. So proper forests had much of the undergrowth removed by grazing domestic animals or peasants.

Before too long, nobles made deer parks near their castles and manor houses. These were forested areas with little or no undergrowth. Parks produced grass, deciduous trees and a steady supply of venison.

Sparse landscapes

Richmond Park in London, England, is one of those royal deer parks. It is 955 hectares (2,360 acres) in size. “Originally created for deer hunting, Richmond Park now has 630 red and fallow deer that roam freely within much of the park. A cull takes place each November and February to ensure numbers can be sustained; about 200 deer are culled annually and the meat is sold to licensed game dealers,” says Wikipedia. No surprise that there are many ancient trees which are protected by fences around the trunk to save them from the deer damage.

When there were no deer parks and large areas of lawn were favoured, sheep would safely graze. This happened in Canadian forts, too. In Fort Langley, B.C., the curators of the fort had a small flock of sheep that “kept the grass down” at night, until eventually the tourists indicated that they preferred the smell of gas-powered lawnmowers to stepping on sheep raisins.

Our short history of sparse landscapes now takes us to my home town – Cedar Grove, Wisconsin. Like many towns it was a misnomer. There was only one grove of cedars, and it was in a park. Our park had mostly maple trees, some ash and hickory. There was a clump or two of bushes, but park meant mainly “deciduous trees with grass beneath them.”

Cedar Grove yards, like many in North America, copied the lawn-and-tree description of the parks. Yes, we did have some flowering shrubs, neatly trimmed, a spruce tree (or even an Eastern white cedar), foundation plantings and a strip of flower bed. The garden was usually clearly distinct from the flower bed except for long, straight rows of gladioli. Many small towns were known for this neatness, control of vegetation and order. Often, in our day, the first thing we do is “clean up” our urban and suburban lots.

So much for parks. Gardens and fields were something different again. In the next column, I will take us via huge generalizations to the history of gardens. Eventually, we’ll get to farm landscapes, and our expectations of them.


  • Curt Gesch

    Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc.

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