There are worse ways of garden visiting than virtually, online. There are better, too, and the best (short of IRL) is memory – supposing, that is, you’ve been there before. Memory needs booting, though. It operates best, I find, if I fix my thoughts on a particular spot I remember clearly and walk myself round from there. It can be surprising how the details come back. “What happens if I turn left here?’ is a subconscious thought, but the subconscious can do what it’s told, turn over a page of memory and reveal the plants, the steps, the bend in the path that are stored there. Or maybe not. Then try turning right, or return your steps to where you spoke to someone, or put your money in the box.
This presupposes, of course, that you were paying attention. I admit mine switches on and off. It switches on when it recognises a plant from my own garden, but most strongly when it doesn’t.
Can anyone keep their attention at full alert all the way round? The problem with written descriptions of gardens is the danger of being too inclusive and banging on regardless. The writer doesn’t want you to miss anything. They glance from left to right, turn this way or that, enumerate the plants and feel a duty to explain the layout at the same time. What is the answer? To subdivide the garden and take one bed, or compartment, or feature at a time? The danger is losing the full wrap-around experience. Analysis, if it has a place, should come after submersion. On the second visit, as it were; not on first acquaintance.
And first acquaintance, ideally, should come as a surprise. Read too much about a garden in advance, or look at too many pictures, and the risk is of seeing it with other people’s eyes rather than your own. Of course this can apply to any of the arts, any place – indeed any experience. Should you prime yourself by hearing an expert view, or submerse yourself in all innocence?
It depends, in reality, on how much time you’ve got. Most organised garden tours, in my experience, try to pack in far too much. Three gardens in a day is not uncommon. In cases like these it is often your camera, rather than your eyes and your brain, that records the experience. Can you really look at and appreciate a garden through a camera lens? It will be frozen in two dimensions; that will be the image you take away, bereft of the scents and sounds, the chill of the wind or the warmth of the sun; a mere token, indeed, of the work of creativity and hard work that you came to see.
You can’t listen to a symphony or an opera in the few moments you have to spare. It dictates its pace. A well-designed garden has its allegros and andantes, its rallentandos and even fortissimos too. Like all worthwhile experiences appreciating a garden takes time.