The garden at Vaux le Vicomte
It is not often recognized that every garden embodies a philosophy, and indeed, tells a story. One of the delicious aspects of touring gardens, for me, is the opportunity to play the detective and attempt to decipher what this story may have been, or may be. When in the course of teaching history as a volunteer in my children's classes, I am often amazed at the fascination which even relatively young students have for the approach to beauty, philosophy and theology, not to mention historical intruigue, which lies in the well worn pathways and structure of a historic landscape garden. Humanity is and has been fascinated by gardens, since the beginning of time, and it is children, in my experience, that understand this best of all. Gardens are magical; they enfold us in a cloister of imagination and sensory impression that seems to transport us to a lost world which we know, somewhere deep inside of us, embodies all the hidden Meaning for which we spend our lifetimes searching. It is the secret gardens of our childhood, hidden doors and pathways to uncover and reclaim, follies to erect and inhabit, that still, as adults, capture our heartsongs in the quiet hours. At our summer property in Big Sur, California (the wild and lovely place), a wild and lovely garden of God's own design, my own urchins love nothing better than to roam free and enjoy its many pleasures just as their Father once did: crawdads in the river; a wild turkey crossing the road; the scent of wild lavender and rosemary and thyme and santolina in the hills and gathered for Mommy in big bouquets to set on the little table; the grand cathedral of awe inspiring Redwood trees.
In my own garden at the House Which Shall be Unnamed, though it is modest, there are many statues, fountains and French-style stone urns, and if you, dear reader, were to follow their progression through the garden, beginning with Venus springing from her foamy shell, through the passageways into the garden of the Muses (our pleasure garden), and up the hidden steps to the secret gate, you would eventually come to Apollo, guardian of the Muses and god of sun and wisdom, and the parterre garden and potager (French for vegetable garden). Apollo rests between two trees, which, alas, though they are not Laurel (though the hedge nearby is), hearken to his desire to be near his beloved Daphne, however unrequited his ardor. The garden at Unnamed House tells a story, a very private story and a very public one at the same time, and in some post to follow I will write a little of both, if you find it of interest. However, because of the great gold mining caper which my son and his friends undertook in my garden in the early Spring in order to reclaim their budding manhood from the chains of city life (more on this, too, in another posting), and our early, several week summer trip to the wild and lovely place, our potager did not materialize this year as it usually does, and the walk up the secret steps into the sunlight and bounty is not what it has been in previous years. We have all felt cut off from a part of Life, as if the cultivation of our own food were so central to our summer liturgy that we are somewhat lost without the ritual of ambling up the steps in the misty mornings, coffee in gloved hand, to weed, or water, or harvest. We are poorer still, for the after dinner promenade, initiated by my husband, which was a kind of benediction (blessing) on our day, to see the soft evening sun fade into velvet shadows and leave its last kisses on the ripening tomatoes, our wine glasses in hand, dreaming of tomorrow's harvest. The urchins have especially mourned the loss of it, and my son forgets the heavy digging and my daughter the weeding, and they remember only the pleasures. My cooking, too, has suffered its absence, for the little Sussex trug that holds the garden bounty and which the urchins bring triumphantly to the marble table in the kitchen for admiration each day, looks empty and forlorn this year. I miss the menus, devised from the garden bounty: the Salade Nicoise from just dug fingerling potatoes, the selenderest haricots verts harvested minutes before being immersed in gallons of salted water, and the ripest heirloom tomatoes, which, together with Nicoise olives, grilled salmon and a sherry vinaigrette, are a feast fit for a King. Though I try to cook this way from the market, it is never the same experience. To harvest magnificent food, prepare it lovingly and eat it en famille is a love song, a hymn of praise, a fellowship wrought from the garden which recalls our fellowship with God, walking in the cool of the evening, in Eden. Next year.
To grow our own food is a revelation, and in my family there is long history of eating from the garden. Both my grandmothers, excellent cooks each in her own right, cooked from their own gardens, and my European grandmother ate little else, harvesting and eating mostly the fruits from her own trees, and that which didn't make it into one of her delicious apricot tarts, for example, the consumption of which is practically a sacramental experience for my family, was preserved for the winter (to be used in more apricot tarts!). She was a phenomenal French cook and her vegetable garden, vast and abundant, is a continuing inspiration to mine. As a very small child, I remember going with my American father, to his mother's house, my other grandmother, and sitting perched on a high chair while he cultivated and hoed and did the heavy work in her garden. Sometimes she would cook us lunch for "our" efforts, too, or we would devour raw oysters on the half shell with her mignonette sauce, seated around the counter in the kitchen. It was she who taught me to love the briny sensuality of an impeccably fresh oyster, and how to make mignonette sauce, and I adore them today beyond all reason, especially with a glass of Cremant. These are the ties that bind, the memories that become the Muses in our own gardens and help to cultivate the story of our own life. Even today, though my grandmother has been gone these many years, when I let a Hamma Hamma oyster from the great waterway at the foot of the Olympic mountains slide down my throat, I am with her again, listening to her read Endymion to me, oyster in one hand, Keats in the other.
In France, a woman, is the artist of life. From an early age, she is taught to cultivate her own private garden from whose harvest she may draw inspiration for this art which she brings to her family. The garden is not to be shared with the Man in her life, except in the way that the harvest is shared. It is a secret garden, cultivated lovingly and deliberately, enriched with the soil of beautiful fables, and delicious morsels. She visits her garden alone, and takes from it the treasure of its yield. The garden is a metaphor for her mind and her heart, I believe, and the riches grown there are her source of strength and beauty, for all of life. Each aspect of her cultivation should be chosen with care: books that help reveal all that is Good and True and Beautiful; memorized poems that comfort the alone times; great stories that encourage her imagination and delight; great art that inspires and challenges; theology and poetry and music and art and culture for certain. But even more so, if she is like I am, and has a faith, her personal relationship with the Living God, the Creator of gardens, the Gardener himself. This garden is her collection of jewels, the reflection of which brings her mystery and which provides her much inspiration for her ability to make art of life, from a garden. I wonder that this isn't what God had in mind when he first placed us in a garden, that in its cultivation, walking with him, we might live as artists, in step with Creation, surely the greatest art known to us yet. Perhaps this is why Christ, as the new Adam, comes to us as the Gardener, the High Priest whose role it is to prune and cultivate our hearts such that we might see this art and know its LIFE as He does.
Statues are as much a part of the life of a French garden as is water, and are believed to give it life and meaning. Perhaps they remind us that life is most about Meaning and less about Most. It is said that Louis XIV once learned the old Greek and Roman stories, which were called Fables, from a pack of cards, and used these to inspire his commissions for the gardens at Versailles (those he did not steal from Vaux le Vicomte, but that is a story for another post). My son has not needed these cards to learn the fables, as the ingenious series of books based upon Greek mythology written by Rick Riordan, and which he devoured last year, has done it for him, and he loves to recount for me the stories hidden in our garden statues. (My daughter, alternately, likes best to play the Muse rather than speak of the Muses. She, too, is hearkening to her French-Swiss heritage?) In the days of Louis, the Jesuits assiduously taught these stories to their pupils, especially the Metamorphosis by Ovid, which I love, and the stories herein were the prime reference for artists, the kind of artists who worked at the gardens at Vaux and at Versailles: Le Brun, Mansart, Le Notre, Lully, Moliere. La Fontaine, the great French poet of this era, whose own fables are enchanting, wrote about the demise of the beautiful garden at Vaux, partially dismantled by Louis, in fabled terms, and I have never forgotten these words, which haunt my quiet hours in the same way as the loss of my own potager, both of which hearken the loss of Eden, such a tragedy it is that a garden, and our communion there, should fall into demise:
In your deep, echoing grottos, fill the air with cries,
Weep, O you nymphs of Vaux, and make your waters rise,
And may the swollen stream wreak havoc on the treasure
Strewn by Flora on its banks where her bounty beyond measure...
The fates are satisfied, Orontes is unhappy.
La Fontaine's readers did not need to be reminded that the poem referenced the plight of Fouquet, owner of Vaux le Vicomte, and to join with the anger of the gods, whose statues were familiar from the gardens at Vaux.
The history of how great waterways were introduced and engineered into European gardens, echoing the Roman gardens, is a fascinating one all its own, which in some future post I hope to explore with you. Initially, water was a source of surprise and delight, with an edge of malice laced between to provide danger and mystery. La Fontaine captured this well, in his quip: A thousand rain like jets come by surprise, to soak the imprudent and to soak the wise." But by the end of the 16th century, such devices began to be viewed as childish. Instead, water began to be utilized in grand canals that defined and gave structure to the garden, such that they provided a central axis that acted as a grand mirror. The mirror was intended to reflect Infinity, to remind the garden guest that the garden was merely a reflection of something much greater at work. Water began to be used in cascades and waterfalls, water chains or "rivieres" such that the sound of water almost seemed to bring to life the statues of the gods and heroes that lined their banks. The water brought the garden Life, and mirrored the infinite Source of Life. It baptised the garden with Life's music, without which the structure and pleasure that existed there was but a poor shadow of what it might be. There were two competing ethos guiding the world of the Italian Renaissance garden on which all of what followed in the reign of Louis XIV was based: Pagan and Christian. Sumptuous gardens were sites created for sensual pleasure and sheer divertissement, but they might also be for sacred aesthetic contemplation or meditation. I think perhaps that the first is merely a distant echo of the second. The garden is a powerful metaphor, for what we cultivate and what is cultivated within us. It is not by accident that we are drawn to gardens. It is the Gardener who has made it so. We are created in His image, made for life in the Garden and this incomprehensible, yet knowable, Artist of Creation, has written it on our hearts.