I’ve been thinking about walking in gardens. It seems a very tame, Sunday-afternoon kind of thing to do, doesn’t it? A garden seems like no place for a serious walker. Gardens are supposedly benign places of order and tranquility, right?
Well, only up to a point. Think of the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane, think of the Garden of Earthly Delights (above): these are places where some less than tranquil stuff definitely went on, and I expect the walking there wasn’t very tranquil either.
Back in the day, I worked in the Botanic Garden in Cambridge - that's it above though I'm not sure it looked much like that when I was there. My fellow gardeners were an interesting bunch, and at least a couple of them were recovering from breakdowns, and working as a gardener was supposed to be a kind of therapy. It wouldn’t have worked for me. I was young, and not much in love with peace and tranquility – I found the work hard and immensely tedious and it drove me, though only in the colloquial sense, nuts. I didn’t last long.
And I’ve been wondering lately whether a garden may in fact be a place of anarchy and chaos rather than order, and whether walking there might be an act of subversion rather than, say, a stroll in the park.
For one reason and another I was in Utah last week and I went to the Gilgal Garden in Salt Lake City. It’s a kind of public sculpture garden, in the middle of a suburban area where the other houses have perfectly ordinary suburban gardens. The state declares Gilgal a “visionary art environment,” which I suppose it is.
It was created by a Mormon businessman, a masonry contractor named Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. (1888-1963). It has a dozen more or less symbolic sculptures and 70 stone slabs engraved with biblical verses, quotations, and lines of poetry. Many, but by no means all, are Mormon texts. There are lines by Thomas Carlyle, for instance, and praise for Queen Victoria.
Child began work on Gilgal Garden in 1945, when he was 57, wealthy, a local figure, and a Mormon Bishop. He, and his crew, kept working on the garden, until the time of his death.
It is, no doubt about it, wholly eccentric and downright comical in places, but the overall effect is not absurd, and if the general intention is spiritual, at the very least it seems to represent Child’s own interpretation of his religion. There’s perhaps something a bit William Blake about this: “Each man must create his own system or else he is a slave to another man’s.”
Here for example is a Sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith, he of the latter day golden tablets.
You might well interpret it as saying that Mormonism is the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle, but intention isn’t everything. It looks like a lark. And is it just me or does that face bear a passing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher?
And here’s the shattered giant from Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, as described in the Book of Daniel. “This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass. His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.”
But you know there’s always going to be something a bit laughable about a giant foot sitting in a garden.
My favorite sculpture (below) is by Maurice Brooks and titled “Monument to the Trade,” showing Child himself – a stern and solid man it appears, and also one who owned a pair of brick trousers.
The garden is too small to offer a very strenuous walk, and yet as you wander its paths it does feel like you’re on an adventure. Who wouldn’t want that? And it must be said, at least when I was there, nobody else was.
About 230 miles south east of Salt Lake City you’ll find the Arches National Park, a stunning, much visited and (let’s face it) severely overcrowded attraction. In the free brochure and map you get after you’ve paid your entrance fee you can read, “Arches National Park is a great family park where you can walk to many features. You can see much from a car, but the special aura of time, silence, and scale may elude you.” I’ll say.
Driving the park’s roads can be like edging along a traffic jam, and I’ve walked down streets in London and New York that aren’t much more crowded than some of the designated trails. Even so, you’d have to be made of stone not to see the beauty and grandeur of the place, and if you go there you just have to accept that in some circumstances beauty and grandeur have to be experienced in the presence of others.
And so it was, as these photographs prove, taken at the Devil’s Garden. I admit I was chiefly attracted by the name. There’s not much peace and tranquility there and not much room for subversion either, though this Japanese woman’s pink trousers do seem satisfyingly out of place.
The Arches visitor center does however have an information board with a quotation from that famous subversive, Edward Abbey (1927 -1989):
Abbey is one of those narrowly known but passionately appreciated writers, a novelist best known for The Monkey Wrench Gang, essayist, journal keeper, lover of wilderness and solitude, denouncer of “Industrial Tourism,” and by some accounts one of the fathers of the modern conservation movement, not least for his book Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. The local bookshop named Back of Beyond, in Moab, the town nearest the Arches has two sections devoted just to Abbey, one for new books, and another, considerably bigger, for used and rare.
Abbey was a park ranger at Arches in 1956 and 1957, but didn’t come back for a third year because he was already finding it over developed even then. He believed that adversity was good for the walker and the explorer of the desert. He was in favor of dirt roads and difficult trails. One can only guess just how much venom he’d spew over the present arrangements, but I dare say he wouldn’t be very surprised.
There are various other Abbey quotations that might have might have been put on that board at the visitors center, for instance, “walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thorn bush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll begin to see something, maybe. Probably not.”
Nor was Abbey much of a believer in the consolations of the garden, “Paradise is not a garden of bliss and changeless perfection where the lions lie down like lambs (what would they eat?) and the angels and cherubim and seraphim rotate in endless idiotic circles … the paradise of which I write and wish to praise is with us yet, the here and now, the actual, tangible, dogmatically real earth on which we stand.” And, of course, walk.