American Horticultural History – where the wild and cultivated meet

I read this article today, and I had a thought: I had never considered that the US might have a distinctive horticultural history of its own, but surely it does. I have always thought of the Brits and the Japanese — even the French — as having an almost fetishistic obsession with horticulture, and such gardens do they have! In comparison here in the US we just have, well, gardens. There seems to be no national “garden”, but how much of that is because we are such a massive country, with a diverse landmass, varied ecosystems, and that we have many cultural groups, too?

Reading this article, though, and thinking about what I know about the settling of the US, it gives me pause, and while I have no basis in fact for any of what is about to follow, I wonder how much of our “gardenscape” is shaped by the clashing of wilderness with civilization? The recent release of Into the Wild (which I’ve yet to see, though I have read the book) has spurred recent writings on the nature of Wilderness, and the very construct of how we perceive these wild spaces; I can’t help but find the idea of 300 year old trees that witnessed the American Revolution to be fundamentally romantic. Are those centurion trees relics of this paved-over wilderness? Were they once surrounded by similar trees, and as the boundaries of cities and towns marched ever onward, and the wilderness receded, are they the last remnants of this ancient landscape? We are such a young country that we can have non-cultivated remainders of this “prelapsarian” time — trees with rings at their centers untainted by pollution or the industrial revolution. I am reminded of seeing the Bristlecone Pine Forest in the Sierra Nevada when I was a teen, where some trees, huddled on the side of high peaks, buffeted by wind and snow and sand and dry high desert air, live to be a thousand years old, or older. They are gnarled and wizened, witnesses to the passage of time: what events have they seen??

Through the trailwork at the WTA, I’ve had a chance to witness the arboreal history of the Pacific Northwest. In the foothills of the Cascades, in what remains of the ancient stands of old growth hemlock, cedar, and fir, you can find stumps of unfathomable dimensions – often more than twelve feet across. In some of these stumps, up around my shoulder height, are strange notches; it wasn’t until I saw a historical placard at a worksite late last fall that I understood what these notches were. These ancient trees were so massive that the loggers of the early 20th century would build platforms that hung off the side of each tree, as this was the only way to get the leverage necessary on their cross-cut saws to bring down these gentle giants. Over a hundred years later, the stumps still remain. Here, with enough experience, you can tell which forests have been logged, and which are truly old growth, you begin to notice the stumps, the variations in vegetation, all subtle indications of the encroachment of civilization. The placement of our trails are no different, I suppose.

Anyway, the trailwork has certainly made me think differently about our landscape and how we use it. True wilderness is a tenuous thing, more a romantic construct (see any one of Albert Bierstadt’s paintings to see what I mean) than a discrete state. The liminal areas between the civilized and the wild must provide a transitional experience: the wild areas can’t be so remote that they are inaccessible, for out of sight is out of mind, susceptible to exploitation by some, and neglect by others. Hmm. All things to continue thinking about.

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~ by ecp on December 3, 2007.

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