It has rained every day so far this year in North Wales – a state of affairs more unusual than you might think. The waterfalls are in splendid spate; just now we saw a group of daredevils canoeing down a fearsome sheer drop, free-falling through the spray. Our little river is in that sinister mood when it runs swift and silent, no ripples breaking its swirling surface. And the ground is saturated. I made the mistake of stepping off a hard track to skirt a fallen tree and went in to the top of one welly. Luckily not over the top, or I would have had to abandon it and limp back barefoot, the light quickly fading, half a mile downhill to the car – not a prospect to relish.
Worse, I was effectively lost. We have just clear-felled the spruce and larch on a wide stretch of hillside, and with the trees has gone all my sense of place. I was negotiating what had been a favourite bit of track, where tall trunks framed the first silver glimpses of the sea. Ferns were thick along the path, giving way to deep green moss and gleaming threads of water under the dark rows of trees. The track turned left here by a flat grey rock to skirt the steepest slope. There was no rock, and no track; just stumps and ruts and snaggy branches higgledy- piggledy everywhere. Getting back down in the dusk was tricky.
Forestry is a messy business; for long years calm, verdant, woken only by the flitting of birds; then suddenly the Somme. The place you knew and loved has ceased to exist. At least I am responsible, or at least obediently following the cycle of planting and harvesting. Foresters are to blame for the biggest changes anyone can perpetrate on the landscape, eliminating beautiful familiar places at a stroke.
So what is a “place”? How is it different from a map reference? A place has intelligence; it depends on understanding – of its purpose, its history, of the forces that flow through it. A landscape or garden designer’s job, or one of them, is to show you where to cast your eyes, and where to put your feet. There are forces at play in a design: sight-lines and pathways and the interplay between them. They are different in different seasons; winter transparency and summer solidity; the sun lower or higher in the sky; pale shadows and black obliterating ones. Colours, of course, and textures, eye-catchers and passages of restful green or grey.
All these contribute to a sense of place. They give you confidence, explain, perhaps subconsciously, where you are and why, what the gardener wants you to observe and enjoy, where you should go next to be excited or to be soothed into a reverie.
A resourceful gardener controls your mood; invites you to share his own, then changes it. It is the reason for the overwhelming success of garden rooms, of Hidcote and Sissinghurst and their many imitators. Great gardeners do it by suggestion, by modulating scale and colour, enclosing you or letting your eyes roam free, splashing water about or letting it reflect the sky: there are a thousand ways.
The forest will grow again – but it will be a different place.