Don Gayton: The Art of the Yard
What we strive for in garden ornamentation - from concrete frogs to wind-driven whirligigs - is both beautiful and important.
Whimsy has few outlets in our society; but yard art is one, and thank God for it. The heavily ridiculed lawn gnome actually forms part of a significant tradition. The acceptable range of lawn and garden ornamentation is surprisingly wide, and it runs from high art to conscious kitsch. Even pink flamingos are allowed, and often experience late-night ownership transfers.
Sundials are a prominent feature in my yard: I have a horizontal one, with polar-pointing gnomon; and another from the armillary tradition, which is a kind of hollow brass hemisphere with an arrow through it. Both are precisely positioned so that when I stand in front of them, I can tell the time by looking at the living room clock through the front window.
Concrete bird baths make up another splendid and diverse yard genre, which I don't get to indulge in because our winter freeze-thaw cycles methodically tear them apart. I content myself instead with ornamental hummingbird feeders. And in lieu of a concrete frog, which would suffer the same fate as the bird baths, I have a faucet handle in the form of a durable brass beaver.
Our objects of yard art speak of a relaxed and elegant lifestyle, even though they mostly lie. That frog, woven hammock, wind-driven whirligig or ornamental bird bath reassures us we have had sufficient time to make serious aesthetic decisions about choosing and placing our art object; that we are going to be around long enough, and have enough leisure time, to enjoy the slow fruits of those decisions. Somehow it doesn't matter that the average homeowner moves every four or five years, and they can rarely spend the kind of whimsical and unfocused time that yard art and landscaping calls for. That is not important. What is important is that we recognize the significance of deep garden time.
Beauty can often be found in the absence of ornamental intent, as in garden tools. They are beautiful precisely because they stand outside the realm of art, and because they have an ecology of their own. They are like sturdy country gentlemen, each with a particular skill. Resting quietly in the garden shed, they await the call to work. Over time, wooden handles develop a subtle finish from the continual rub of hands, and steel blades burnish from rhythmic contact with the earth.
My own set of garden tools is fairly extensive, since I subscribe to the self-fulfilling male logic that any project worth doing deserves at least one new tool to do it with. So I have two rakes, a couple of pruning saws, a trowel, small medium and large pruning shears, a disgraced sledgehammer, a mattock and a pry bar. There are three shovels - one spade, one rounded, one a tree planter's shovel. A Dutch hoe, a pitchfork, and a manual grass whip. A wooden-handled steel wheelbarrow and a couple of buckets. The design of each one of these tools represents at least a century of continuous refinement of purpose, and none have even a speck of ornamentation. Their beauty lies in their total functionality, and the refreshing absence of microchips.
My conscious attempts at garden beauty are often less successful than my unconscious ones. The garden shed which houses my tools has developed a brand of funky elegance all its own, an elegance that was not intended when I built it. Occupying some dead space between my neighbour's house and mine, it was cobbled together with some used mahogany panelling, assorted 2x4s and a spare piece of linoleum. The shed is just big enough for me to stand in, alongside the country gentlemen. Inside I scabbed in a shelf to hold seed, small tools and that garden essential, extra hose washers. I also keep a notebook there, for variety names, planting dates and impetuous literary observations that cannot wait until I get back to my desk. I made the roof from a translucent greenhouse panel, so a bit of sun gets through to the interior. Ornamentation is utilitarian - a couple of decorative firebox doors, scavenged from abandoned wood stoves, to cover up holes in the wood panelling. A Virginia creeper is slowly embracing the shed, adding its own verdant beauty plus some structural support. The creeper, along with age and a general lack of upkeep, has allowed the shed to perform an unexpectedly graceful merger with nature.
Objects of garden art, particularly buildings, are sometimes called follies. The folly legitimacy debate has raged on for some time now; actually for a couple of centuries. Experts agree that a folly must have no function, but there are those who go on to say that any structure consciously built as a folly cannot be one, by definition. A true folly must originate from genuine but loopy intent, they say. Anything else is mere caricature. As one folly authority put it, "you cannot build one deliberately. Only other people can bestow the title of Folly on your monstrous erection."
In the early 1800s, the heyday of follies, wealthy European estate owners would create artificial lakes, and then islands in the lakes, as sites for useless ornamental buildings that would provide artistic contrast with their landscaping. Faux Greek temples were popular, as were gazebos. Many of these constructions were considered suspect by the purists, since they were not only silly in the eyes of the beholder, but those of the creator as well. So the aesthetic purists coined the derogatory term fabrique and applied it to the structures they considered to be illegitimate follies.
The next crisis to hit the folly world was perpetrated by 19th-century landscape painters, who demanded buildings of a certain sort to include in their expensive compositions. Fortunately, true follies prevailed, since there were enough wealthy, eccentric and genuine nutbars around to conceive and build them.
Brass beavers, sundials and funky garden sheds are not enough to elevate me to the world of folly - but perhaps whimsy will do, for now.