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Garden Chances Let Slip
by Jill Cooper Robinson

Surely only in a moment of weakness does a writer release a silly sentimental shell of a book like this. Ostensibly, it is Douglas Chambers's account of being a first-time gardener discovering the satisfaction in wresting a planned landscape from an innocent piece of land.
Had he given us something new to say about this experience or perhaps have said it better than anyone else, he might have hung a satisfying book on the subject. As it is, first-time domestic gardeners, even fairly ambitious ones, are no longer a novelty and any book that advertises "the making of a garden" had better deliver a great deal more than hopes, dreams, and the acquisition of some basic design and plant techniques.
So forget the subtitle. Though Chambers has undoubtedly created a pleasant enough space, this book was obviously never meant to be any kind of methodical guide to the business of actually making a garden.
What is it then? Hard for us to know. And surely we are to be forgiven the confusion, since times without number Chambers himself admits to a lack of direction about what he has written. Here is a book without a central core, and the author knows it. In one of many confessions of doubt he says, "Many texts are here.all of them.creating something that even I will not understand until years from now.if then." Ha! What hope have we?
Superficially, this is the chronicle of a ten-year period in Chambers's life when he decided upon, devised, and developed with various professionals, mentors, and sympathetic fellows the acreage and buildings of an old family farm located some few hours outside Toronto. Seen in the most charitable light, the book is a mirror of this decade-long personal journey, which collects the flavour of friends, family, places, and events-both past and present-which contributed to the exercise.
The mood that sticks, though, is one of too much ego and too much fear: the ego of someone setting out to create nothing less than a masterpiece, because he feels he is worthy of one; and the fear of failing after such standards have been set. It all becomes too defensive by half. Betimes, peevish and whiney, I felt I was an unwilling companion of some sort of mid-life crisis that only happened to coincide with a landscape project.
The book is neither fish nor fowl, bug nor beast. It's not a romantic poem, though he's romantic enough. It's not a plain and simple account, he's far too extravagant for that. It's not the magnificent obsession of the building of a Monticello with all the magnetic force of narrative this sort of thing invokes. It wishes continually it were any of these and takes swings at all three. The efforts show, but not in any harmonious result.
Yet there was a book in all this. Even perhaps a book about a garden of rare and tremendous proportions. Every so often, Chambers drops tantalizing hints about the unique geological setting of his farm in Bruce County, Ontario. I was completely captivated by the words, "Here we have a well, down to the largest underground river in Southern Ontario. That river.leaves Georgian Bay on one side of the Bruce Peninsula, goes over an underwater waterfall.before flowing under the limestone bedrock of the county to empty into Lake Huron."
Natives of Bruce County may long have taken such wonders for granted. For someone sitting out here on the coast, such images are haunting. In fact, everything about the geology of the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes basin has always assumed mythic proportions to those of us not close to it. How exotic to think of gardening on top of a sleeping giant. Like twining peas up the walls of the Aswan Dam. Surely this is a mother-lode of romance just waiting to be tapped by a writer of Chambers's sensibilities. Furthermore, he misses a genuine focus in the one area in which his obvious sincerity comes ringing through: that of the peculiar taste in eighteenth-century landscapers for peppering their estates with inscribed ornaments. In fact, if the book sounds a true note, it is in his descriptions and accounts of all the many and varied adornments and pieces of text he has placed throughout his garden, and I do mean many. The overall plan of the grounds includes a separate legend for these, adding up to fourteen. There is yet a second plan devoted just to the ornaments themselves, which adds another twenty beyond the fourteen. And goodness knows how many more he describes in the text. In the final chapters he throws all caution to the wind and rushes pell-mell to the finish line in a breathless description of his installations of yesterday, the ones he'll be doing today, and his plans for new ones tomorrow.
We do not appreciate this taste nowadays but it has an historical precedent, and a certain appeal. Michael Charlesworth, a landscape historian, explains, "The seemingly natural gardens which became established in England from 1720 to 1750 used temples, statues, and seats.sometimes embellished with suitable inscriptions.to inspire in the visitor a mood suitable for a part of the garden. It was a means of adding the element of intellectual excitement to the sensual enjoyment of the garden."
Chambers, the man who wrote the very interesting The Planters of the English Landscape Garden (Yale University Press, 1995), could have made a real contribution here to the contemporary landscape repertoire, by reinterpreting this aspect of the eighteenth-century mind, and educating us as he went along. He missed the chance. Instead, to the end, he continues to wrestle with tiny devils, such as going public with Stonyground. A conference centre? A gardening school? Of course, the gift shop where he'll sell his cunningly clever granite Stonyground pins. All this from the same man who claims, "No-one who arrives in a `revved-up' Camaro or Trans-Am gets time in my garden." Such delicate feelings don't seemed to have bothered the Duponts at Longwood.

 Jill Cooper Robinson is a Halifax writer.


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