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‘Planting Memory’ The Challenge of Remembering the Past on the Somme, Gallipoli and Melbourne

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Written by Paul Gough

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This is the opening from an article which was published in Garden History, Journal of the Garden History Society, Vol.42, Suppl.1, 2014, pp.3-17.

Read the full article here.

Gardens have long been regarded as a ‘palliative for melancholy’ and a congenial environment for solitary contemplation. In Western Christian teaching the garden is seen as a place for spiritual reflection, a space designed to stimulate meditation, introspection and the easing of the imagination. Furthermore, gardens are liminal enclaves, withdrawn from the customary disruption of urbanization, where precious objects, memorials and other sculpted forms can be placed under the open sky ‘in the eye of god’.

In their many different and varied forms gardens, parks and arboreta have become closely associated with memory systems, whereby themes, ideas and classical references can be referenced in statuary, fountains and diverse formal objects. Reflecting on the episodic arrangements of gardens such as those at Stowe or Stourhead, John Dixon Hunt has examined how these objets de jardin can act as a sequence of code that might be ‘strung together into an iconographical programme or narrative’. However, here the garden-as-mnemonic-text is at its most vulnerable. Over even a short period of time cultural references can be lost or displaced, and a ‘proper’ reading will be at the mercy of the linguistic sophistication and foreknowledge of subsequent generations. In addition, growth, decay and replacement will muddle the narrative intent. over time even the most carefully arranged gardens face this erosion of their original purpose.

Those who design memorial gardens and arboreta, in particular, rely on a parallel narrative of naming; using labels, captions and texts to provide a running commentary on the origins, associations and mnemonic function of particular trees, shrubs or plantings. We can see this played out in the memorial parks on the former battlefields on the Western Front and on other theatres of war. It has also been realized on a grand scale in the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, where the vast planting schema offers an indexical account of British conflicts in the past century. At Alrewas, the mnemonic structure of the designed garden is exactly synchronized with the task of memorialization. Arguably, it is the most comprehensive theatre of symbolic memory in Europe, offering a dramaturgical spectacle populated – one might say didactically enacted – by plants, shrubs and young trees all on a scale that might have impressed the great landscapists of the eighteenth century. Strewn with an assortment of sculpted forms, arches and stones of remembrance at alrewas, the iconic complements the indexical. There is a well-scripted dialogue between neatly arranged nature and well-crafted text that allows names and events to speak ‘beyond the grave’, even though there are no bodies interred in its vast acreage. It is a place where we remember by proxy; a place where remembering the dead is linked to a life cycle of planting, caring and nurture.

The staged setting of a garden such as Alrewas can be usefully compared with commemorative landscapes such as the Ehrenhaine, or ‘Heroe’s Groves’, of post-war Germany, or memorial gardens such as Coronation Park in Toronto (where groves of maple trees were planted in memory of Canadian troops who fought overseas) or indeed the large parkland of King’s Domain in Melbourne, which has been progressively filled with plantings, statuary and other memorial markers since it was first initiated in the 1920s. these revered public places might also be regarded as dramaturgical spaces, with the natural and situated objects acting out specific parts that represent both physical vulnerability and transience, but also respectful reverence within a larger framework of sacrifice and nationhood. In such places the seasonal cycle of nature ‘confronts men and women with their own changes and mortality’, to quote Doris Francis, concentrating the mind on the brevity of life and swift passage of time.

This paper explores the role of arboreal and natural ‘memorials’ in creating meaning, and looks at how the planting of commemorative trees, plants and flowers requires wilful participation from those who wish to remember. planting, as George McKay and others have pointed out, is at times a political act, requiring intervention, nurturing and constant vigilance. Whereas the erection of a memorial in stone and bronze might bring about a moment of closure, a memorial garden usually offers only a start; gardening is seen as a means not an end. on the former battlefields of the Western Front in France and Belgium the theatre of war has been superseded by theatres of memory. These vary in scale and intent from the declamatory and highly politicized tone of the Island of Ireland Peace Park on the Messines Ridge to the more modest Sheffield Memorial Park near Serre, which has accumulated a succession of private and regimental memorial components in the past ninety years.

This paper also touches on the challenge for the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission in galvanizing and managing the symbolic power of the cycles of natural decay and renewal. drawing on the consoling properties of nature, they had to bring order to chaos, soothe the memory of dreadful events that had occurred nearby, and try to arrest the moment of untimely death. consolation is a crucial factor in any garden memorial, and perhaps of all art forms they have the unique capacity to evoke poignant analogies between human existence, the fragility of nature and the assurance of ‘cyclic regeneration’. Here, the role of the gardener is crucial: a skilful gardener can appear to deny death and disorder by planting, maintaining and caring for plants within the walled domain. as francis et al. observed, a well-tended garden is a ‘symbolic bulwark’ against disorder, decay and the occasional randomness of death. Nowhere was this more urgent than on the pulverized battlefields of the Western Front, Macedonia (Northern Greece) or the Dardanelles (Western Turkey). the green coverlet of carefully cropped turf that was laid between the white headstones in the ‘Silent Cities’ on the Somme, at Arras or around Ypres was intended to offer succour to those whose loved ones had been lost in the calamitous void of trench warfare. The scale of that task is worth examining in some detail.

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