Landscapes, both planned and natural, are filled with history, and our associations with these places connect us to who we are on a fundamental level. And this past weekend, as landscape architect Thomas Woltz spoke to an audience of gardeners in Great Barrington as part of the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture Series, he emphasized his heartfelt belief in the significance of such cultural landscapes. Such places are typically defined as “including both cultural and natural resources and the wildlife or domestic animals therein, associated with a historic event, activity, or person or exhibiting other cultural or aesthetic values.”
If this all sounds too serious or intellectualized, Woltz made a convincing argument that such sites serve as a connection to our history and sense of self, and that they are perhaps more effective than the monuments of stone, engraved with names of people we do not know, that are typically created to commemorate the Holocaust and 9/11, or the statuary carved in memory of natural disasters and school shootings.
As he discussed his ideas of how the land and a site can be the best connective tool to the past, whether to the slaughter of the first people of Tasmania or the landing of flight 93 in Pennsylvania on 9/11, it brought to mind a detour I took through Gettysburg several years back, on my way home from Charleston. Having lived in Richmond and amongst my share of history buffs, I have never found myself drawn either to the history of the War of Northern Aggression (as it was still called in certain political circles other than my own), nor to the works created in its memory. Monument Avenue in Richmond was just that, a street of beautiful old homes dotted with memorials to Civil War generals and heroes (I will leave it to you to determine from which side of the war), and beautiful though these old bronzes were, they left me cold. Like the letters T-R-U-M-P in front of a building, they struck me as a elements for branding, not a statement of values and ideals (unlike the letters ACLU, which seem to represent something in which to believe.)
I often found war memorials to be senseless, from the Pearl Harbor memorial and the plaques on the shores of Normandy to the Marine Corps War Memorial of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a fight that left my uncle deaf and disheartened (one of the men immortalized in the bronze statue was a dear friend of his.) It seemed hard for such memorials to separate the valor of these men and women from the devastation and violence of war, and many of these memorials, in my opinion, failed to delineate between the two.
I expected that Gettysburg would leave me feeling similarly, but as I was passing through the area anyway, I saw no reason not to take a slight detour and see the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. (I grew up in the North where the war was known by this name.) As I passed through the sylvan forests and hillsides, I was taken by the natural beauty of the region. The woods were edged with stands of native viburnum and invasive Russian olive (no comment on whether we would see the latter as foreign under our current administration.) The landscape was breathtaking, but still, as the mile markers indicated I was getting closer and closer, I prepared myself for the standard tourist sight that I imagined Gettysburg would be. I had no doubt that, as I neared the battlefield, I would come across innumerable statues and structures memorializing war heroes and figures known and unknown who fought in this battle, which, as any sixth grader can tell you, had more casualties than any other battle in the war and was viewed as the war’s turning point. A quick glance at the National Park Services website confirms the surfeit of stone, bronze and serif-ed engravings within the park, along with an overwhelming choice of events and activities, but the impression of the place that lives in my memory is quite different.
As I drove across the park, I came to an opening of seemingly endless fields and hills, covered in the soft green of early season grasses, edged by woods that cut in and out in large arcs, casting shadows and creating roosts in which soldiers could take cover or find advantage in battle. I stopped the car, got out, and looked about. I thought of these fields a century and a half earlier, strewn with the carcasses of soldiers. I did not think of their names, nor colors of their uniforms (many soldiers fought in their own clothing, not the blue or gray of the Union or the Confederacy), but of the chaos that must have ensued. Of how men fought one another in the haze of battle, brother against brother, scared and unsure of who was comrade or who was enemy. I felt the horror of battle far more meaningfully than any list of names inscribed on bronze could have communicated.
The vastness of the open fields made me understand the scope and scale of loss in the most visual manner. And the horror of war never felt more real or relatable. The verdant green grass, coming out of the long winter and drawing new life from the sun, made me see how a landscape could simultaneously hold on to a harsh past and still allow us to heal.
As I fell back into Thomas Woltz’s lecture and heard him speak about the Flight 93 Memorial in Pennsylvania, where 40 groves of red maples would turn scarlet each September in memory of the people who lost their lives there, I realized that the landscape can have a memory, too.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.