This past winter (October 20, 2010) I’ve taken the opportunity to re-align the paths through our meadows. It was a job long overdue. I remember excavating the original paths across those awkward slopes in ’94 with nothing more than a rotary-hoe. Deciding upon each path’s trajectory, marking this with tomato stakes, then running the rather heavy and very cumbersome hoe repeatedly backwards and forwards was pretty solid work. Each time I was chewing a little soil out of the upper side of the track and depositing it on the lower. Each run left the path a little more level. Getting the paths right required many trips backwards and forwards and after two hours of this nonsense I was shaking with fatigue. There are better ways of making paths, still our budget was tight and a rotary-hoe will do something of a job. Paths end up spongy but at least they’re walkable. Half a day later and a few barrow loads of toppings raked along them, at last visitors could walk through our meadows. Years on, compromises caused by using a rotary-hoe as an excavation tool were becoming exasperating and re-aligning by a landscaper mate with a bobcat seemed the right move.
In a previous life in WA, on a wheat and sheep farm at Mogumber, I’d once had the chance to design a driveway to the house my wife Valerie and I had just completed building. The build had been quite an adventure. The walls were rammed earth. This was rather new to Australia those days. Its roof was silvery zinc-alum corrugated-iron and the build site was on a gentle hill in the 200 acre paddock pretty-well in the middle of the farm.
Now when times come to build most farmers choose a place with generous views, or somewhere level with deep soil, or, if need be, in the lee of shady trees and out of the wind. Always the house should be close to the main road. I, garden in mind, had built near our best water supply, some four kilometres in from the entrance. Mind you there were lovely views all the way, splendid hills and meandering valleys and paddocks chequered with eucalypts. Glorious trees such as wandoos, their trunks dappled suede and cream. And intriguingly flat-topped York gums with soft charcoal-grey bark. And marris, which in low evening light were reminiscent of oaks. Best of all were the powder barks. These magnificent trees were similar to wandoos but with dappled-salmon bark and their leaves olives and silvers and browns. And there were two perennial streams!
The last part of the drive took visitors over one of the streams. Here I’d made an earthen bridge with the thought it might be reminiscent of Stourhead’s grassy bridge, the one over the arm of the lake on the main circuit one strolls admiring the views.* I was hoping our stream might be a consoling surprise for visitors who’d made it thus far. Streams flowing through Mogumber’s hot dry summers are something to treasure, their green grassy banks in vivid contrast with the otherwise ubiquitous dry-grass bare-earth dry season landscape. Past the stream there were a few hundred metres of grey dryandra scrub, then a kilometre of steadily rising ground to our rammed earth house hidden just over the lip of the hill-top.
Footnote – The English National Trust garden in Wiltshire. (JF)
It was this last stretch that needed more thought. A track existed, had been much used by the tradies building the house. It ran beside a fence line much of the way before cutting across to the house over a stretch of smoother paddock. This seemed just a little prosaic, a bit make-shift, and it ignored one or two oddities of the landscape. Despite its high hilltop site, for reasons of topography and coincidence, the house was hidden from visitors for almost all of their drive in from the front gate. There was just one tantalizing glimpse from a hill near the farm’s entrance more than three kilometres away. Otherwise not a sign until visitors crested the final slope and the house square in front of them. The drive was already a mind-game. Was there a way to make more of this?
Re-aligning the final approach was the chance to add some more drama I was thinking and something I’d been looking forward to all through the house-build. The exit from the dryandra was a given. From there, several approaches to the house were practical. After considerable pondering I came to feel the track might be best veering away from the fence in two or three subtle changes of direction. Visitors emerging from the scrub would find their path edging towards the highest point of the rise, though with a just a degree of uncertainty. Keep in mind visitors had by now been driving for quite a while on a track swinging pretty sharply at times, following farm lane-ways and tucked beside curving contour banks, the many baffling changes of direction making it impossible to know where they now were, how much further there might be and were they on the right dratted farm anymore? Breasting the rise and the house right in front of them could be a pleasant denouement was my thinking. It might strike the right little note to resolve any tension.*
Footnote – I’ll own up I was reading Proust at the time. In the first pages of Remembrance of Things Past Proust remembers, as a boy, travelling on a winding road through rolling countryside between villages and several church spires forming a series of ever-changing triangles, the patterns of which, to the eyes of a child, seemed improbable if not impossible. (JF)
Other things to consider were the several magnificent marris, Corymbia calophylla, (syn. Eucalyptus calophylla) near the top of the hill and a little to the left. Also some wonderful Western Australian Christmas trees, Nuytsia floribunda to the right.* Most were not close to where the track had to go however they made an excuse to gently weave it’s trajectory, as though it had once been avoiding trees, long fallen and rotted away. There was a good kilometre of paddock to play with. Anything less and these slight deviations might have been obvious and irritating. So I filled in an afternoon with the farm utility trying various ways up and down the slope, marking them with the tyre-marks I was leaving behind, finally decided upon one giving the best ‘come and explore me’ feel and went home to order in some truckloads of a good earthy-coloured crushed rock.
Footnote – Nuytsia floribunba is actually a giant mistletoe. It flowers around Christmas with enormous sprays of rich-orange flowers. In its thieving search for nutrients, roots latch onto anything and everything including coaxial cables. Our telephone cable had to be buried well out of reach of these magnificent trees. (JF)
I say all this because that afternoon on the farm was so much in mind while working the rotary hoe across the meadow. The path is the most important part of the garden. Its elegance in its logic. The path decides the character of that part of the garden and it’s essential it be compatible with this aim. It’s nice to incorporate some ‘design’ for sure but this must be done with great care. There was really little choice in where the farm track should go. For most of the way it had to run down laneways and dodge around trees. Reconfiguring that final kilometre could allow the addition of a little bit of story, the chance for some commentary on the drive to that point if you will. However this had to be done cautiously. In the instance of Cloudehill, the meadow’s inconsistent slope made a straight path out of the question. There are no straight lines anyway in this part of the garden. On the other hand a path weaving giddily across the slope would be absurd, my saying ‘here I am making you walk all over the shop.’
There’s the story of the landscape architect, Kevin Lynch, given the task of designing paths for an American university and a complex of newly constructed buildings bordering a rectangular turfed space with a path around its perimeter. The architect’s job was to design central paths and the obvious thing was to run these out as two axes crossing each other’s central point at right angles in the tradition stretching back to medieval monasteries and their hortus conclusis courtyards.
In a move puzzling I expect to others on the project, Lynch elected to do nothing immediately. Instead he left students to stroll across the quadrangle, from one building to another, one class to the next, crushing newly-laid turf every step of the way. Returning months later, it was the easiest thing to glance at the traffic-worn strips cutting with teenager logic through the otherwise pristine grass and naturally not one at right angles with anything, then pave them. This has since become commonplace. One sees paths everywhere at strangely odd angles across otherwise formal spaces, though always where people are inclined to walk anyway. In the parlance of the landscape architect, these are desire lines. Lynch’s quadrangle was revolutionary. He turned generations of design principles on their head. It might be said Lynch waved a flag for democracy. The role of the architect in how customers, students, visitors, should navigate their way through a garden was now seen secondary to what they themselves preferred doing. So, in the absence of students to mark them out properly I was aiming to make my paths as much like desire lines as possible.
Footnote - The author of ‘Image of the City’ (1960). (JF)
Place d’Youville in Montreal Canada, an exemplary use of straight ‘desire lines’ in a public space.
(Image by Jean-Francois Vezina, Garden Illustrated, April 2016 issue.)
Paths are the sinews of the garden. They decide everything. In the instance of Cloudehill, comfortably wide and reasonably level paths from the top of the garden become narrower and windier and steeper as one explores. Paths in the meadows are curving diagonals through the long grass, and also, I hope, enticing ways to explore these wilder places. The path across our top meadow sweeps gently around an old apple tree* and curves a little left and right, responding to variations in the slope, then pivots around a glorious Chamaecyparis nootkatensis Pendula at its lowest point and vanishes under an old holly hedge. The path through the lower meadow is more of a curve. This meadow falls away in its centre and a straight path would have required visitors to walk some way down a slope then back to much the same level. The somewhat semi-circular and more-or-less level route I devised avoids any clambering up and down and, I trust, is much more of a desire line.
Footnote – One of Jim Woolrich’s old apples, sadly, was torn down by a storm December 28, 2017. (JF)
My younger days, running merinos on the far side of Australia, provided pointers to making gardens on slope. Sheep are not ones to waste effort climbing up and down hills if they can help. Their carefully thought out little paths weave around slopes, staying level whenever possible. Parallel paths on different levels have just occasional connecting ramps and always on gentle gradients. I recommend anyone with a sloping site to explore some hilly sheep pasture and see how merinos solve this puzzle before commencing their garden.