Each spring as the sun approaches its zenith in the northern hemisphere, an explosion of flowers and plants arrives on the bluffs above the Loire River in the heart of French chateau country. This year, as the daily press shines its klieg lights on the flaming idiocy of the current American regime and its determination to melt the polar ice caps while rendering our fields and forests into charred wastelands, a visit to the sublime gardens and art parks of the Chateau Chaumont feels more vital than ever. As in every year, twenty garden and landscape designers have been invited to show their vegetative schemes on a three acre slope near the chateau.
This summer the theme is Flower Power. Despite the banal title, these land artists are directly confronting the wasteful, destructive politics that threaten all living creatures, whether we are primordial ferns, frogs and water witches or humans searching for refuge. I was there on one of the long holiday weekends that turn the month of May into a moving periscope on summer pleasures to come. Hundreds of visitors, mostly families with children, stood waiting under the hot sun for the park’s 10 a.m. opening.
The twenty installations, given over to hundreds of flowering vines, shrubs, trees and plants serve two missions: first to delight the eye and the perfume the air; second to remind us of the sacred essence gardens have possessed since time immemorial. Early in the tour just before entering a misty forest glade, is a long narrow pool that could have been a direct transplant from the Zoroastrian gardens of ancient Persia.
The Zoroastrians are widely credited with having been the first great garden designers as vital monuments to the gods at the same time as offering cool redoubts for quiet meditation and reflection. Long pools and canals, dominant themes in this year’s Chaumont gardens, were symbols of Paradise—etymologically the walls of the gods—where the soul could find sustenance and renewal. That notion of the garden as a sacred refuge especially in times of conflict and division persisted across the Greek and Roman dominion of the Mediterranean, then into select Medieval monastic settlements, renewed by the Italian Renaissance before being captured by the great chateaux of royalist France.
All too often in the American lexicon, we take our gardens as pedestrian feeding fields or as amusements for the idle rich. Both are a betrayal of the core notion of a garden as Andrea Wulf has brilliantly reminded us in her recent book, The Founding Gardeners, about the scientific and spiritual importance of gardens to Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and their comrades in earliest America. For these 18th century Founders, North and South, the garden represented much more: it was a merging point between science and spirit where Nature (with a big N) in the “New” (and for them unsettled and uncivilized) world came to terms with rules and order to create a new way of life and a new kind of society. A well wrought garden was understood as a birthing ground both for the multitude of plants the Founders were discovering but also for a new sort of civilization for eager, anxious (white) people.
All these far flung thoughts bubble up in the two hours it takes to appreciate fully the gardens at Chaumont, the most fanciful of the Loire Valley chateaux. The intention of the landscape is as well very clear, as in a series of walls—all white on their front sides—multi-colored when you step ahead to regard their back sides.
It is hard to imagine a better respite from the acid ignorance of the mop-headed pretender in Washington and his friend and diabolical benefactor on the Volga—though one thought did occur as we passed a simple installation dominated by Red Hot Poker plant indigenous to Eritrea.
All photos by C. Sevault (c)2017