Thursday, 5 January 2012

Round and Round - Eternal Circle

A simple shape, the circle, and I'm not about to go into one of those new-age frenzies about magic and power.  But the shape of  the space we are in surely affects the way we feel; strolling past or plumping ourselves right down inside there.

Garden-making is an opportunity to draw shapes on the ground and in the air; what a pleasure it is to fashion mass and space as you carve excess from shrubs and trees.  Even mowing the grass is a form of sculpture and creating a round of green laid flat is far from artless.  But there are many meanings to such a circular space and only some of them are what we really want.

The example above, set in the Welsh border counties, a garden called The Nurtons, seems almost like perfection.  It draws you down, holding you connected to those murkey hills, but doing so kindly.  That's what gardens should be about, cultivation hovering on the edge of the wilderness, holding humans in balance, not teetering, but dancing, or resting. 

There's often a feeling of a stage  in a circular space.  The hills and the trees are the audience, we're looking out from the circle, not inwards to nothing. 

The next photo is a very poor representation of Sticky Wicket, a garden in Dorset, UK, sadly now closed to the public, but revolutionary and influential in its time.  A garden that is returning to wildness, beautifully and naturally.  Its centrepiece was a huge planted circle, flatter in the centre, where a stone rippled outwards in waves of planting, all encircled by further ripples of grasses, shrubs and wildflowers.  Perhaps you could not dance comfortably there, but some could sing.  I look through my photographs of this garden and I could weep for the beauty of what they show, the huge soft complexity and the blessed unity.  I so wish this one was better but I'm trying to make a point here.

Circles higher than yourself, closer to you, have a very different feel.  The strength of the shape intensifies towards the dark perimeter, the centre is a vacuum. In the example below, that accounts for the terracotta umbilicus, which holds it all in place. 

 If you cannot look out easily, you might feel like a frightened rat, such as I once found in my tall round compost heap.  It (the heap) had plastic snap-together uprights as walls.  I had indeed snapped a lot of these uprights together, creating a small arena.  I was in there with the rat, to our mutual surprise, doing a little light clearing and turning.  It raced round and round the perimeter and I eventually threw myself over the top to freedom, equally desperate to leave - it was like one of us was the toreador, we just didn't know which.

This structure could make one feel the same way, that relentless sense of enclosure is apparent, amplified by the height and circularity.  It's all about focus of course, whirling round and round in here would make anyone panic.  Such structures are supposed to act as breathing spaces in packed gardens, but you'll find very few people standing around in them breathing.

The photograph above is of Sissinghurst, with its own famous circular pivot-point, connecting different garden rooms.  You see it on the right-hand side, hedged with yew.  You cannot see out, except along the escape routes.  You don't panic, but you could feel a moment of tedium as you pass quickly through.

Over to Dylan.  An unfamiliar song, simple to understand but densely apposite to our subject; it's Eternal Circle on the The Bootleg Series vols. 1 - 3.  Now in this song, the singer does an interesting thing, he speaks of himself, as the singer, of this very song, in the very act of singing.  We find ourselves standing with him, on a stage, really quite circular, like the passing of time as he sings.  His eyes "dance a circle", round the perimeter and a woman catches his eye.

There's a to and fro in the next few verses, an unspoken calling back and forth between them.  But he gamely continues almost trudging round his song, which is long, telling us how far he's got through it, how long there is to go.  And at the end, he can no longer find her, so starts the next song; the circle of time begins again.  From that to the circle in space, to the circle in time, to the circle in space and so on.

What matters though is the detail.  The singer is alert, observant and self-aware.  He knows exactly what the woman is doing, even to how she is breathing.  He takes us though his own thoughts and movements.  From the round space, his heightened perception becomes our own, we're in the centre of the circle of his consciousness with him. 

If you successfully place a circle in your garden I think you can get the same feeling; focussed from the centre of your own self, you relate more strongly to details beyond the perimeter.  The above example, taken at Burrow Farm Garden in Devon, shows that even a low semi-circle of hedge can draw things together and throw individual elements into relief.

And I don't think you even need to be inside the circle to get this feeling.  And it doesn't even need to be a complete circle.

Perhaps we can even do away with the hedge.  I wonder if a pot, well-placed and in scale, can give the same sense.  I'll excude the one in the photograph above, which doesn't seem quite right.  Have a look at this one though.  From the same garden.  Does it work in the same way?

And while we're in the smaller scale, here's a garden I work in, where the circle pulls the details round it into focus.  I could almost imagine one of the plants on the far side was ready to give me a wave.  The circle was here when I started the replanting, but it's a pleasure to work within such a framework, as it must have been for Dylan to compose such a clever, careful  "artless" song.


  1. Wonderful blog. I wish I had the time to create anything you have done here! Delightful reading.

  2. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it, and lovely to know you did.

  3. I am a gardener and a listener to Bob Dylan too. Great to read your blog. Always like your connections..........inspiration and ideas for my gardening efforts, and makes me go back to Bob songs I haven't listened too for a while with a new perspective. Thanks

  4. Thanks Jenny G. Delighted to have returned you to Bob, and pleased on the gardening front too. I am often surprised, even as I write them, by how fruitful the connections are!

  5. Jane, I love posts that help me understand the principles underlying garden design, and this did that for me. I just recently discovered your blog at Blotanical, and I'm enjoying it very much. I do a monthly "Garden Blog of the Month" feature on my blog, Jean's Garden, and I just wanted to let you know that your blog is one of two I've highlighted this month. My post reviewing your blog just went up, and your blog will be featured on my sidebar throughout the month. Cheers -Jean

  6. The previous owner of my house decided on a nearly circular patio out back, which I now garden around, and I have to admit I struggle with it... it is hard to make it seem natural. These do a much better job!

    I have come here via Jean, and as always she does a good job of finding the new blotanical blogs to pay attention to. Welcome.

  7. Welcome to Blotanical,

    Un saludo

  8. Hello Jess and Jordi, thanks for reading and commenting. Jess, I hope you can find a way with your patio - perhaps a strong visual escape route would help?

  9. Enjoyed much my visit today to your Blog. Pictures were great and your explanations done very well. Look forward to more of same. Here on the shore of Lake Michigan, it is the lake that is the constant yet changing backdrop for so many of my photos thorough out the many garden rooms. Jack

  10. Thanks so much Jack. I'll be visiting! Very pleased that I'm being clear enough. Thank you for telling me that.