It is typical of our national taste in gardening that a rockery is a place to grow plants we categorise as suitable and appropriate – rather than a place to admire rocks. Rock-worship is something bizarre and eccentric indulged in by the Chinese (craggy rocks, usually on end) and the Japanese (smooth rocks, often lying down), while we pursue our obsession with flowers and leaves.
Tell English gardeners that a warlord of a thousand years ago took the garden rocks of his defeated rival as trophies, transporting them to his own garden miles away, and they will roll their eyes. “And pine trees” you add, and faint comprehension dawns. Trees are plants. Excessive, perhaps, and impractical, but moving plants, even as booty, is something we understand. When we incorporate stone in our gardens, and not as a support for “alpine” plants, we cut and dress it into architectural forms.
We do recognise menhirs. A fine standing stone has a place in our culture. One of the finest (I claim, with no modesty at all) is the rock I carried from North Wales to our old garden at Saling Hall. In its height (nearly 9 feet), its texture (grey granite patterned with lichens that vary from light green to dull orange with the seasons), the frozen flow of its formation and the cragginess of its top, like a distant summit, it draws visitors like a splendid sculpture – and stays indelibly in my mind.
These lapidary reflections were brought on by a new issue of SiteLines dedicated to stones. SiteLines is the (suitably landscape format) magazine of the Institute for Landscape Studies, a brainchild of Betsy Barlow Rogers, the remarkable New Yorker responsible for the renaissance of Central Park.
No city is stonier than New York – which is why it grows skyscrapers with minimum fuss. The defining features of Central Park are the grey rock outcrops and glacial boulders revealed (not without effort and expense) by removing thousands of tons of soil and glacial alluvium to show Manhattan’s bones. Olmsted’s “lithic mood” coincided with his discovery of Yosemite and the dramatic geology of the Sierras. My own lithic mood is longstanding, currently latent, but stirred by the thoughts in this most original magazine. (www.foundationforlandscapestudies.org)