ALL the older men and women now living whose recollections of garden matters run back, say into the seventies, will remember the violent controversy then raging between the advocates of the formal garden on the one side and of the natural style on the other. Those were days of violent partizanship in all matters. In politics and religion people were habitually intolerant. In certain families it was held that to vote the democratic ticket was prima facie evidence of murder, arson, and embezzlement of funds. In other circles it was fully agreed that unless one were immersed into a particular church he would surely land in the eternal fires. Amongst people trained in this temper the ardent disagreements over garden style were perfectly natural and necessary.
And, we ought to add, altogether bad. Though some theorists may argue that the modern man's lack of strong convictions is a weakness, it is perfectly plain that the growth of tolerance, the broadening of view, the greater catholicity of taste in all matters, mark a very genuine advance. It is a great and genuine gain for the spirit of humanity.
This change, which has marked all realms of thought, has been as effective in the field of landscape gardening as anywhere else. To those of us who remember it, it has been equally agreeable.
We may fairly claim to have achieved a full freedom in these matters. Every well-trained landscape architect in America designs freely if either the formal or the natural style, frequently using both styles in different parts of the same project. The ill-natured polemics of the seventies have disappeared altogether from the garden literature of the present day.
This change has been wholly for good. I rejoice in every thought of it; and as I take up now a discussion of the natural style, my unwavering allegiance to the modern Catholicism must be most emphatically declared. Thus when I find it necessary to praise the natural style, to allege some neglect of it, and to make some comparisons in its favor, these statements must not be taken to reflect adversely on any other style nor to indicate a partizan opinion.
To trace fully the development of the ideaof a natural style in gardening would be exceedingly interesting, but it would require a great deal of time and space. Fortunately a complete historical review is not necessary to our present purposes. It is essential to observe, however, that the natural style has meant very different things at different times. Nearly every reformer has advertised his own work as more natural than his predecessors, or as a "return to nature." The garden of Eden is described as designed in the natural style. - Batty Langley was one of the most interesting of these reformers, and it is worth while now to note what was his idea of the natural style. The plate used as an end paper in this volume, from his book, will show pretty clearly what he had in mind when he announced his "New Principles of Gardening: Or, The Laying out and Planting Parterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks, etc., after a more Grand and Rural Manner, than has been done before".
Another curious episode was the career of Laun-celot Brown—"Old Capability Brown/' as his jealous critics dubbed him. His contribution to the natural style was the discovery that "Nature abhors a straight line." Therefore away with straight lines. With a strong start in this direction it is easy to conclude that the further we get away from the straight line the nearer we get to Nature. So Brown made walks and drives and artificial watercourses so crooked that they lost their way. It was said that his walks tied themselves in true lovers' knots and that his made rivers often doubled and crossed their own courses. Brown made himself thoroughly ridiculous, but he illustrated one idea of the natural style, and an idea which has more recently and in a milder form had a distinguished hearing in America.
After Brown arose a small group of doctrinaires who theorized that the only way to make a truly natural composition was to copy it in detail from nature. The neglected moraine, the common stone heap and the untutored wayside copse became their patterns to be slavishly reproduced in their "gardens/' Because broken, dead and blasted trees were found in the native woods these enthusiasts transplanted dead trees to their private parks. These extravagances, however, soon followed Laun-celot Brown's crooked line theory into the limbo of discarded jokes.
The idea of making literal transcriptions from Nature has had a much greater and more interesting development elsewhere. What we know (and very vaguely understand) as the Japanese style of landscape gardening—a style which it appears originated in China—is founded precisely on this theory. The original idea was to copy certain classic landscapes or landscape arrangements; and as these first oriental landscape gardeners were priests, and as their gardening was primarily for the embellishment of the temple grounds, their prime models were certain sacred landscapes, made sacred by association with other shrines.
These sacred landscape arrangements were then reproduced in other localities, but, as in a drawing, to a scale considerably smaller than the originals. It was considered obligatory to preserve this reduced scale throughout the copy. Thus if the copy was at one-tenth the size of the original, each hill and each tree must be reduced in the same proportion. While obviously this theory has not been rigidly adhered to in all examples of Japanese gardening, it has been carried far enough to make most gardens seem very curious to occidental eyes. But the Japanese gardener sometimes asserts that his is the only natural style, and from his point of view he is just as nearly right as anybody else.
In America there have been less radical but very plain differences of opinion as to what really constitutes a natural style. The idea which has had the widest vogue has certainly been the native flora cult. A very respectable number of very respectable gardening persons (with perhaps the tender sex predominating) have made themselves quite delightful grounds with plants selected strictly from the local flora. Of course there have been some differences. One gardener would accept any species native to America; another insists on plants from his own state; the garden maker of real convictions accepts nothing but what grows naturally on his own farm.