Manitoba History: Review Article: The Place of Memory: Some Recent Publications on Landscape History
by Susan Buggey
Relationships with the land have always been a strong and integral part of the Canadian experience. From the mnemonic traditions of Aboriginal peoples through the painted landscapes of the Group of Seven to the geographical determinism of the “empire of the St Lawrence”, Canadians have celebrated, struggled with, and cursed the peculiarities of the land. Recently, the environmental movement, both globally and locally, has focused our attention anew on the relationship between nature and contemporary culture. While geographers have made cultural landscapes a focal point of study since the 1920s, the heritage conservation movement has come slowly to incorporate such interaction between people and their natural environment.
The four works in this review all address the theme of human relationship with the natural environment. They are linked by such common foci as the role and recognition of memory, divergent expressions of value in landscape, the relevance of place, and the philosophy and practice of on-the-ground treatment. They illustrate the diversity of approaches to conserving the past in today’s society. Simon Schama’s emphasis is placed on the role of knowledge, understanding, recognition, and appreciation. Dolores Hayden, in contrast, focuses on communication of that knowledge through public action, particularly public art. Hayden’s African American, Latina and Japanese American “voices” represent parts of the American experience largely unheard in the historic preservation movement. The “voices” collected by Edwinna von Baeyer and Pleasance Crawford are Canadian; they speak primarily of a subject, rather than a cultural experience, not previously heard. Finally, the restoration of the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace in England brings the landscape out of memory and culture, off the page, and onto the ground.
The relationship between history and memory is complex. In Landscape and Memory historian Simon Schama roams across Western Civilization, exploring the vast sweep of time and place and myth. His own description of his journey through “the garden of the Western landscape imagination” is that he has “walked”, while he readily admits that 19th-century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, to whom he pays homage, would have challenged him with having “sauntered” (p. 577). Neither of these verbs captures the enormous breadth of Schama’s field of attention. Rather, a Prairie person might say he has “roamed”, a term which evokes the immense range of the Canadian Prairies/Great Plains in their diversity, their timelessness, and their symbolic qualities. Let me not imply, however, that Schama’s study is in any way aimless. He does not approach his subject in the familiar ways, either by nation state or by chronology. Rather, he organizes his vast range of material by three broad themes that comprise fundamental components of the physical landscape in all times and all places: wood, water, and rock. In a final section, uniting them, he explores the mythic landscape of Arcadia, a constant theme through Western thought from the ancient Greeks to the 19th century. The integration of landscape, history, myth, literature, and art that Schama practices will not be unfamiliar to landscape historians, particularly of 18th century England where great country estates like Rousham, Stowe, Stourhead, and Hawkstone Park, inspired by Italian landscape painting and English politics, encapsulated an allegorical world in the design and features of grand landscape parks.
Schama has, however, a more explicit purpose than merely revisiting the glories of Western culture. Concerned by historical interpretations deriving from the philosophies of the environmental movement and developed particularly in the work of leading American environmental historians, he demonstrates that such apparently natural phenomena as wilderness are, in fact, cultural constructs: “the wilderness does not locate itself ... nor could the wilderness venerate itself ...” (p. 7). Wilderness, not long ago understood principally as pristine nature, as nature untouched by human activity, is coming increasingly to be seen as having been shaped by human forces through at least periodic human occupation, harvesting, land management, and sometimes exploitation. It is now widely accepted, even among environmental conservation leaders, that virtually all natural ecosystems have been substantially changed by human action. Schama undertakes to address the assumption “that Western culture has evolved by sloughing off its nature myths” (p. 14) . “What I have tried to show in Landscape and Memory”, he asserts, “is that the cultural habits of humanity have always made room for the sacredness of nature” (p. 18). “The point of Landscape and Memory”, he states, “is not to contest the reality of [the environmental] crisis. It is, rather, by revealing the richness, antiquity, and complexity of our landscape tradition, to show just how much we stand to lose. Instead of assuming the mutually exclusive character of Western culture and nature, I want to suggest the strength of the links that have bound them together” (p. 14).
Schama addresses memory through the sense of cultural experience; he reaches into the traditions of a culture to explore pervasive symbols of nature surviving, evolving, continuing across millennia. Unlike recent controversial presentations evoking recent memory, such as The Valour and the Horror film or the Enola Gay incident at the Smithsonian Institution, he is rarely concerned with personal memory. Despite this, his own memories of England as a boy and of Poland as his ancestral homeland as seen through a personal visit there to explore the pervasiveness of the puszcza, the woodland wilderness, in Polish national memory are among the richest demonstrations of his thesis. The richness and intimacy of the detail, the precision of his language, and the multitudinous perspectives drawn into these evocative portraits at two moments in time entrance the reader into the complexities of Schama’s approach and illustrations.
The forest of Bialowie along Poland’s fluctuating border epitomizes Schama’s concept of the inter-connectedness of culture and nature. The primeval habitat of the Lithuanian bison, “a talisman of survival” (p. 41), it incorporates memories of the feudal horsemen of Poland’s 17th century glory, transition to the ecological and economic exploitation of the Enlightenment, the royal game preserve with its hunter/gatherer society, and the anguish of multiple foreign occupations. This symbol of Polish identity is richly elaborated in national literature and art. Oaks in the national park at Bialowie a, officially designated as national monuments, are named for the lost kings of Poland, “their kin in place and time” (p. 57). Other intricate examinations of the theme of wood explore Tacitus’ Germania as “the birth certificate of the German race” (p. 76); the persistence of the greenwood and the heart of oak as English bulwarks of freedom; the prevalence of trees in Christian imagery, and the integration of divinity and nature in the nationalist interpretation of the mammoth trees of the American west coast.
Water and rock are similar subjects of pervasive myth. From the legend of Osiris and the Burton-Speke rivalry to find the source of the Nile to Sir Walter Raleigh’s quest for El Dorado along the Orinoco, from the Tiber and the Rhine to the Hudson Valley painters, Schama explores rivers as continuous images of fertility and havoc, of linear and circulatory movements akin to life forces, and of obsessive pursuits of dreams. The iconography of decorative waters, from Bernini’s sculptures to Caserta and Versailles, expounds the relationships of water to power and divinity expressed through cascades, canals, and fountains. From the soaring spirit of human aspiration—whether Christian asceticism or physical conquest—to the terror of cataclysmic falls, the mountains Schama surveys recur in time and space. The story of Rose Powell’s campaign to add women’s rights crusader Susan B. Anthony to the four presidents sculpted on Mount Rushmore is Schama’s most elaborate gesture in recognition of women’s contribution to the Western landscape tradition. He also links this 20th century American celebration of democracy to an underlying myth of Dinocrates running back through an architectural and metaphorical tradition to classical Greece. The premier symbolic mountains of Europe, the Alps, emerge in Schama’s analysis as not only “the temple of sublimity” but also “the seat of virtue” in the context of 18th century tourism.
The complexity of Schama’s exploration of the Western inherited tradition of landscape, the richness of his language and images, and the capacity of his work to evoke other cultures and places make Landscape and Memory a strong contender for my stay on the proverbial desert island.
Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place. Urban Landscapes as Public History also addresses cultural memory and place. It is an impressively articulate “reflection” on the eight years’ experience of The Power of Place, a small non-profit corporation that she launched in Los Angeles in 1984 “to situate women’s history and ethnic history in downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists (p. xi). She defines her audience as threefold: students and scholars of the history of urban space; practitioners in many fields who deal with urban space; active citizens who care about public places. The first third of the book presents an intellectual framework of contemporary multidisciplinary perspectives and approaches to under-standing the American urban environment; the remaining two-thirds uses Los Angeles, incidentally the third largest Canadian city (p. 83), as a laboratory for projects to stimulate, enhance, and implement public awareness and community support for the urban past of ordinary working people, particularly ethnic women, as part of the urban landscape of the city. Recognizing that urban preservation has largely ignored both the working population and the ethnic diversity of cities, Hayden undertakes to “explore some ways that locating ethnic and women’s history in urban space can contribute to what might be called a politics of place construction, redefining the mainstream experience, and making visible some of its forgotten parts” (p. xii).
Hayden’s framework offers two parts: an understanding of how social history is embedded in the urban landscape and its connections to public memory (chapter 2) and various means to engage urban landscape history as a unifying framework for urban preservation (chapter 3). Using French sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s thesis that every society develops “a distinctive social space that meets its intertwined requirements for economic production and social reproduction” (p. 19), Hayden examines “working landscapes”, “territorial histories based on race and gender”, and “the political life of ordinary buildings” to identify ways of investigating and analyzing the complex cultural landscapes of cities. Storytelling, cognitive mapping, documentary research, architectural analysis, environmental protection, and public art are among the diverse approaches she discusses as ways to probe and encapsulate memory with place.
Historic preservation, as practitioners in the field well know, has been concerned primarily with the physical aspects of place—form, design, materials, craftsmanship. Similarly, social historians have given little attention to place. Hayden focuses her emphasis on the opportunity of their conjuncture—the associative values of place, which characterized much of the thinking about heritage in the interwar years, but have long been supplanted by concerns for authenticity in the physical fabric of places. As well as distinctive design traditions for buildings and outdoor spaces associated with different cultural groups, places used for public activities such as festivals and typical public behaviour in different places define “the enacted environment” (p. 35). Places may also have symbolic importance, such as established routes which take on cultural identity. Individuals’ memories are strongly rooted in place, and places thus have the potential to evoke a strong sense of identity. As Hayden emphasizes, it is this capacity of places to stimulate a sense of cultural belonging that can break down the alienation of contemporary urban society. In assessing urban preservation, there is the need to under-stand “the power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens’ public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory” (p. 9), as she puts it.
While the three Los Angeles projects described in some detail differ from one another in significant respects, what they have in common is their identification of a place and theme related to women’s and ethnic history that could attract strong community endorsement, mainstream funding, and a highly visible public delivery. In each project The Power of Place, working with community organizations, provided the historical investigation and urban analysis, built the public awareness, organized a high profile public workshop, identified funding sources as well as developed interpretive products, largely in the form of public art. Each made active use of the icons of cultural or class groups for which it speaks, and Hayden stresses the importance of retaining commitment to making projects accountable to residents.
In commemorating the life of Biddy Mason, a poster, a book, an elevator lobby installation and pocket park celebrated this remarkable freed black slave who served Angelenos as both a midwife and a community builder in the second half of the 19th century. Most visibly, an interpretive wall turned a marginal alley on her former house site into a significant public place linking two modem buildings in a National Register Historic District. Hayden is candid about the challenges and obstacles to accomplishing the projects. At the landmark Embassy Auditorium (1914), historically significant for its role in housing organized rallies for unionizing ethnic women in the garment trades and coalitions of labour and community groups, community supported efforts to salute three Latina labour organizers of the 1930s through the installation of major public art were thwarted by civic staff, potential sale of the building, and abandonment. A third project, focused on “Little Tokyo”, the much altered central district of Japanese Americans since the late 19th century, created a sidewalk commemorative path connecting the doorways of the last intact block, which has strengthened its sense of place.
In addition to its role of record and memory, the particular usefulness of Hayden’s work lies in its applicability to other places. Her approaches might well be adapted to cities, like Winnipeg, whose diverse ethnicity holds potential for community building through landscape preservation, broader social interpretation, and public art.
One of the distinctive cultural expressions in cities is the landscape individuals and institutions create in the spaces they control. Canadians do not think of themselves as a nation of gardeners, but gardening has been polled as the second most popular hobby in Canada, after only hockey. Recognizing this interest, garden writer Edwinna von Baeyer and landscape historian Pleasance Crawford have compiled a compelling collection of Canadians’ statements on the subject in Garden Voices. Two Centuries of Canadian Garden Writing. With about 90 glimpses from an initial selection of over 350 items drawn from their own research over the past 15 years as well as new research to balance themes, voices, geography and chronology, they have demonstrated our long fascination, and perseverance, with gardening in this country.
Organized under seven themes—“Calling All Gardeners,” “Breaking New Ground,” “Laying Out the Grounds,” “Gardening in Public,” “Naming Friends and Foes,” “Praising Favourite Plants,” and “Looking Back”—the texts capture the enthusiasm, curiosity, nurturing and struggles that Canadians have brought to their gardens. Each section spans its theme across time and space. Each primarily one-to-three page selection is prefaced by a short note on its author and/or source. Many of these authors are virtually unknown even to Canadian garden historians. The excavation of these detailed biographies from a myriad of obscure sources to provide a context for the written words in themselves adds significantly to our knowledge of the environments, patterns and contributors to gardening activity in Canada.
What voices do we hear in this collection? A significant number of Canada’s noted writers and practitioners speak on horticulture and gardening, from Catharine Parr Traill and D. W. Beadle to H. A. Engelhardt, Frederick G. Todd, and W. T. Macoun. A number of the authors were gardeners, nurserymen, horticulturists, or landscape architects, but for many their livelihoods and reputations were not based in this field. Rather, they were officials or their spouses, journalists, or leaders in local, regional or national organizations with a personal interest in gardening. Many were born in England or had lived there at some time, imbibing the national passion for gardening. The kitchen garden, the school garden, the railway garden, the rock garden—all have their spokesperson. The diversity of plants they talk about is truly astounding.
In terms of chronology, eight of the 90 entries predate 1850, and 20 date from the past 15 years. The editors have made a concerted effort to represent all regions of Canada. In addition to the diversity portrayed by those who have gardened and written in more than one part of the country, every province and territory has at least one entry. None the less, nearly half the selections come from Ontario. Long established settlement, an early horticultural industry, a concentrated population, and Canada’s publishing centre have all contributed to a larger resource base there than elsewhere. Salubrious British Columbia is well illustrated with 12, and the Atlantic provinces with 15. In contrast there are few texts from Quebec, and those are predominantly from Aylmer in the Ottawa Valley and Montreal; none are from French sources.
Women, long recognized as practical gardeners, are well represented, with nearly half the entries. Their voices range from chatelaine Elizabeth Simcoe in Upper and Lower Canada in the 1790s, to Juliana Horatia Ewing’s letters from New Brunswick in 1869, Annie L. Jack of The Canadian Garden in 1911, Henrietta Wood’s dream of her vacant lot garden in 1917, landscape architect Lorrie A. Dunington-Grubb in the 1930s, Jean McKinley as editor at Canadian Homes and Gardens in 1952, nurserywoman Asta Antoft in Nova Scotia in 1972, to columnist Marjorie Harris in The Globe and Mail in 1994. The cultural diversity of Canada is much less voluble, although the editors have clearly sought to ensure its presence through Aboriginal gardens before European contact, Mennonite gardens in Ontario, Mediterranean gardens in Montreal, Doukhobor traditions in gardens in BC as well as Chinese, Japanese and multi-ethnic gardens there, along with a remnant of Africville in Halifax.
The nine voices from the three Prairie provinces speak of the challenges and pleasures of successful cultivation in the region and of its practice over time. Mary Irene Parlby, a leader in the United Farm Women of Alberta and the landmark Persons Case, complains in 1920 of the impediment to farm gardens of government-imposed tariffs and regulations. Twenty years later, farm homemaker Velma Peterson, a native Albertan, celebrates her 66 flower varieties and her exchange of seeds with neighbours and visitors, despite the dried up farm crops. Plant breeder Percy H. Wright in Saskatoon assesses the success of his roses in a letter to plant hybridist Isabella Preston; W. R. Leslie, former superintendent of the Dominion Experimental Farm at Morden, expounds the protective role of snow cover in one of the first of his more than 1500 “Over the Garden Wall” columns for the Winnipeg Free Press; and Frank L. Skinner of the Dropmore Hardy Plant Nursery, who introduced nearly 250 plant hybrids, explains why the hardy plants native to eastern Asia proved so useful in plant breeding in Manitoba. F. Leslie Sara, a respected Calgary naturalist, describes the Reader Rock Garden (1934), and Winnipeg businessman William Douglas reports on 80 years of the Winnipeg Parks Board’s activities. Geographer Tim Ball, founder of the Rupert’s Land Research Centre, studies gardening traditions of the fur trade, while Nancy Pollock-Ellwand, then with Parks Canada, describes the challenges of restoring the W. R. Motherwell Homestead in Abernethy, Saskatchewan.
Garden restorations pose exceptional challenges in terms of philosophy, authenticity, and practical decision-making because of their organic nature, their rarely recorded histories, and their characteristic ephemerality. The King’s Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace 1689-1995, edited by Simon Thurley, Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, recounts an extraordinary historic preservation landscape achievement of re-opening the relationship between the king’s apartments and the garden after centuries of overgrowth had cut it off and of re-establishing with an extraordinary degree of accuracy the original appearance of the garden. Created for monarchs William and Mary in 1689-1702, the Privy Garden is an outstanding exception to the usual garden restoration conundrum because of the happy conjuncture of its recognized historical significance and aesthetic quality, its high degree of integrity in surviving fabric of the Baroque era, and its superb documentary and iconographic record. Extensive archival, horticultural and archaeological research were pursued to complement a survey of landscape conservation philosophy and practice drawn from recent major landscape restorations, especially that at Het Loo, William’s summer palace in the Netherlands, and its subsequent management experience. As this report of the restoration and its related research makes clear, the widely interdisciplinary team still faced major challenges in terms of successive interpretations and applications of the available evidence, implications for historical accuracy, contemporary conservation philosophy, and the needs of the more than a million visitors who come to the site each year. Simon Thurley’s chapter on “Research and restoration” highlights a series of major issues, each time concisely presenting the options explored and the decisions made. The three succeeding chapters, by landscape architect and historian David Jacques, historic planting advisor Jan Woudstra, and archaeologist Brian Dix with Stephen Parry, report on the key research areas. All reflect the detailed investigation and analysis that resulted in the profound understanding of the site that underlies the restoration opened last year. The clarity of the project process and its analytical approaches, the extensive integration of different disciplinary knowledge and perspectives, and the detailed organization and elaboration of the research findings make this report a model for students and practitioners who search out the still meagre technical literature on landscape restoration. The report also contains a wealth of historical and contemporary illustrations, many of dramatic composition and in colour.
Increasing interest in cultural landscapes as an approach to addressing our cultural and natural environment is stimulating extensive study and publication in an interdisciplinary context. While historians and history have dominated this particular group of very different recent books, they share their attention with many others who also see landscapes as important to understanding and appreciating today’s world.
Page revised: 26 September 2012Back to top of page