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Elizabeth Westling

Elizabeth Westling

Posted: October 3, 2010 09:40 AM

A new career late in life

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On this happy occasion of our graduation from the Landscape Institute, I could talk about how I fortuitously discovered the field of landscape design and its sister field, landscape history. Or, I could talk about the immense pleasure I have experienced struggling to master the contents of every class I have ever taken here. Or, I could dispense unwanted projections or advice on the future of the landscape profession. But I would rather relate my odyssey of discovery into the field of landscape design and what it has meant to me personally. This time around--since I am now over sixty and had previously earned a Masters degree in Reformation history--school has been an awakening--an arousal of my most creative and best talents; a discovery of creative talents that I either never knew existed or did not believe I possessed. My achievements and the approval of practitioners in this field--professionals, teachers, clients, and students--have allowed a new found confidence to take root in me.
With every paper I write, with every garden I design, with every plot and pot of earth I run through my fingers, I have looked for Beauty and Truth--the Janus figure that satisfies both the heart and mind. Why a garden--such a fragile and ephemeral piece of nature--should have this effect, I surely do not know. Perhaps it has something to do with trees. Andrew Jackson Downing once said that "trees are like the returns of gratitude, [they] raise a most delightful train of sensations in the mind; so innocent and rational, that they justly rank with the most exquisite of human enjoyments." And though we may never fully understand why, our sentient being is made better by this brush with nature.
Perhaps it has to do with the stones. In the landscape, stones are primal shapes. They look as if they pushed their way up from the center of the earth and serve as a reminder of man's connection with the larger universe. To the poets, Wm. Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold, stones speak of our passage on earth's diurnal course or trap our melancholy in the folds of the wind as she rides down the "naked shingles of the world".
Perhaps it has to do with water. Unlike the strength, stability and timelessness of stones, water reveals the ambiguity, the paradoxical nature of our reality. The river of seasonal change that runs through every garden recalls to mind Goethe's insight that every generation must work to reinvent what it has inherited from the past.
Perhaps it has to do with aesthetic design. In the garden, man has always been a creator; whether with geometry, with more natural forms, or even with man-made materials. Renaissance garden designers, carrying on the Platonic traditions that sought to perfect human life and humanity's earth-bound destiny, used a geometry through which the right numbers and proportions--worked out in paint, wood, stone, or plant--would permit beauty and perfection to emerge as a living, breathing spirit. In late 19th century America, design plans for real estate development extended to whole neighborhoods whose embellishment was a peculiar source of pleasure and pride for their owners. Even in modern gardens--in the scenery that nature provides and man composes--a beauty can emerge in the partnership of trust between humanity and the rest of nature in the respect not only for what each can give but for what the other receive.
Over time, the garden has been our constant companion. She has emerged out of the timeless serenity of nature to partner with the human need for sustenance, for metaphorical imagination, and for bringing the counter-intuitive into the world as living, visible form. In the grand scheme of things, every garden exists--to recall the words of Camelot--for "one brief shining moment". Gardens will always be our "wisps of glory."
Elizabeth Westling, The Landscape Institute, 2008